It’s no surprise that Mary Poppins Returns, an industrial-strength sugarplum, doesn’t live up to the 1964 original; how do you replace the immortal Julie Andrews as the London nanny who drops from the clouds to dispense tough love. Luckily, we have Emily Blunt, an actress who makes her own kind of magic in playing the impatient, imperious fixer once described as looking “like Joan Crawford trying to be nice.”
This sequel, efficiently directed by Rob Marshall, is set 25 years after the first film. But it follows the same beats, including a new score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that sounds like warmed-over Sherman brothers. There are echoes everywhere of what came before — including a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who’ll remind of you of Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep Bert, right down to the unapologetically fake Cockney accent. What’s the radical creator of Hamilton doing in this family-friendly escapism? The answer: having a ball. In his big-screen debut, Miranda has charm to spare and throws in a little rap during a number called “A Cover Is Not the Book.”
Set during the “Great Slump” on the 1930s, the film calls Ms. Poppins from the clouds just in time. The Banks children, whom she once raised from pups, are now fully grown — and in crisis. Jane (Emily Mortimer) rallies her spirits by whipping up support for the besieged working class. But her widowed brother Michael (Ben Whishaw, gloom personified) is a struggling artist. Worse, he can barely dodge foreclosure on the house on Cherry Tree Lane where he lives with his three motherless children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and little Georgie (Joel Dawson), the cutie whose kite pulls Mary from the sky.
It’s this nanny from heaven who knows there’s nothing a cheery song can’t cure, with a little help from animation, relentless optimism and her resourceful friend Jack. They all dance around to “Trip a Little Fantastic,” a number so reminiscent of “Step in Time” it barely avoids charges of plagiarism. For plot, screenwriter David Magee borrows from the 1935 sequel that author P.L. Travers wrote to her own book (she wrote eight Poppins books in all … so we may be in for a franchise).
And before you can say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Mary, the kids and Jack’s lively crew are off on a series of marvelous adventures. There’s a bathtub plunge that leads to an undersea kingdom; a visit to Mary’s cousin Topsy (a delightfully deranged Meryl Streep) whose house turns upside down every second Wednesday of the month; and a trip inside a china bowl where animation creates a whirlwind of narrow, funny-scary escapes. To calm her young charges, Mary sings a curious ballad called “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” which suggests their late mother may be found among missing dolls and umbrellas. (We know Disney dotes on dead parental figures, but what was she thinking?!) And why does the nanny perversely enjoy withholding her magic powers until the very last minute, making all those lamplighters risk their lives climbing Big Ben when she can simply fly up and change the clock to buy extra minutes for Michael to pay off a greedy banker (Colin Firth)? Is she teaching self-reliance or just having a joke? You may wonder.
Blunt, all drollness and dazzle, adds needed spice to the movie’s heaping spoonfuls of sugar. Near the end, Van Dyke, now 91, shows up for a dance and a giggle — not as Bert but as a kindly banker. And in a cameo reportedly meant for Andrews, Angela Lansbury appears as a balloon lady to sing the movie out in a number called “Nowhere To Go But Up.” It would have been a treat to see Andrews one more time in her Oscar-winning role. But the last thing this hard-working sequel needs is another reason to cast it in the shadow of its predecessor. Still, when Blunt and Miranda cut through the film’s glucose overload and take off into the wild blue of their own unique and extraordinary talents, Mary Poppins Returns shows it has the power to leave you deliriously happy.