From its opening song—which introduces the audience to Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a gleeful street lamplighter—Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns makes clear that it’s uninterested in expanding on the world of Mary Poppins.
In theory, then, the new Mary Poppins Returns should cast an even more potent spell, what with all the advances of modernity at its disposal. And indeed, the zippy musical numbers in which Mary Poppins (a stiff-lipped Emily Blunt) whisks cherubs Annabel, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson, respectively) away into colorful hyperreal fantasias impress. But they often impress in the same remote, impersonal manner as the floating chunks of island from Avatar—mighty in form, lacking in soul.
How apropos that Mary Poppins should decide to revisit the Banks family just when they’ve become hard up for cash. Now adults during the economic “Great Slump” of the ’30s, siblings Michael (a mustachioed Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are in danger of losing their beloved family home due to some delinquent loan payments.
To give Mary Poppins Returns anything less than adulation makes one a Grinch, but it seems that’s what the film is coasting on. There are certainly things to applaud about this sequel, but there’s a been-there, done-that feeling to everything. The beleaguered father plotline, drawn straight from the original Poppins, certainly has a unique sheen to it. Ben Whishaw’s Michael Banks is quiet and sensitive. There’s no denying the character’s adoration for his deceased wife and his children. Whishaw’s performance of “A Conversation” is lovely and there’s no need to hide his emotion.
If you look back at the original Mary Poppins, it’s an odd sort of movie that thrives thanks to the strength of the music and the performances from Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. However, it’s also a movie with some sly social commentary in the way it juxtaposes certain songs and looks at particular characters. While we all remember Mary and Bert dancing with animated characters, we would also do well to remember that the song “Feed the Birds” is then followed by “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” where the greedy bankers would steal tuppence from a young boy, and remark that if you “feed the birds” you just get “fat birds”, a scathing statement on how the wealthy view social welfare.
Probably the worst thing you can do before watching Mary Poppins Returns is to see the 1964’s Mary Poppins not just because it’s hard to compare to a film that has such a beloved reputation, but because you can see all the ways Marshall comes up short. His movie just doesn’t have the same level of imagination, and it certainly doesn’t have the songwriting chops (there’s not a song in Mary Poppins Returns that has the staying power of “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”).
That’s not to say that the original Mary Poppins is some untouchable gem, but rather that it appears Mary Poppins Returns didn’t even try to outdo the original in any respect. It’s content to stay in the shadow of its predecessor, and while it’s awfully cheery in that shadow, it feels destined to fade from memory almost as soon as the closing credits roll.