One can imagine, given the studio’s zeal to redo its old properties, that somebody in the inner circle occasionally raised the possibility of remaking the 1964 “Mary Poppins,” but that wiser heads prevailed, arguing that the movie was too beloved to be simply duplicated. But what has instead resulted is a sequel that attempts to be a virtual carbon copy of the original, a remake in everything but name—and charm. It follows a dictum about sequels pronounced years ago by ersatz drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs: just make the same movie over again.
Not that this “Mary Poppins Returns” uses the old screenplay or the old songs. But David Magee’s new script follows most of the same beats the first film did, and each of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman has been patterned after a number from the 1964 movie. The visual elements are reminiscent of the earlier film, too—from sequences defying gravity to mixtures of live-action with colorful 2D animation (the latter nicely done under the supervision of Jim Capobianco). The makers have deliberately striven for a degree of familiarity that will play into older members of the audience’s longing for nostalgia while also satisfying the kiddies.
What the movie proves, however, is that unlike love (at least as the Frank Sinatra song would have it), it’s not necessarily lovelier the second time around. Despite the obvious pains director Rob Marshall and his team have taken to evoke their movie’s iconic predecessor—the picture is predictably gorgeous, with a lovely production design (by John Myhre) and costumes (by Sandy Powell), captured in lustrous images by cinematographer Dion Beebe—it resembles nothing so much as a flop Broadway musical from the sixties, one of those shows that followed a prescribed formula so dutifully that it wound up feeling determinedly second-rate.
Magee’s screenplay could be subtitled “The Next Generation.” During the Great Depression (or “Slump,” as the Brits call it), the Banks children from the first film are now grown up: Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a teller at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, while Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps him keep the family home organized, alongside their semi-dotty housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), at least in the time she can spare from her activism in support of the hard-pressed working poor.
But the family is struggling, and not just because of the financial downturn. Michael’s wife has recently died, leaving the grief-stricken man to care for their three children—twins Annabel and John (Pixie Davies and Nathanael Saleh) and younger brother Georgie (Joel Dawson). Sad and distracted, Michael has neglected to keep up payments on a loan from the bank, and a crisis occurs when a couple of collectors (Jeremy Swift and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) arrive, demanding full repayment in just five days. Though his boss Wilkins (Colin Firth), the bank’s president, assures Michael he’ll help as much as possible, the two-faced scoundrel is actually interested only in multiplying foreclosures, with the Banks house among them.
Fortunately Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes floating from the sky to save the day, in her usual indirect fashion. The formidable lady takes the children on fanciful trips to dream locales—a glitzy music hall housed inside a painted porcelain bowl, an underwater world reached via a bathtub—and for a visit with her wacky cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), whose shop has the odd habit of revolving so that people might wind up on the ceiling.
While reviving the youngsters’ spirits in the face of loss, Mary also steers the family toward the recovery of some mislaid bank shares that, if found, will save the family home. When the deadline for presenting them is in danger of running out, moreover, she engineers an intervention that literally stops time—shades of Richard Donner’s “Superman.” She’s also instrumental in providing a magical finale that’s literally lighter than air. In all of this she’s aided by Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a smiling, athletic lamplighter who’s the movie’s stand-in for Dick Van Dyke’s Bert and a prospective romantic interest for Jane.
Blunt proves an admirable successor to Julie Andrews. She doesn’t have as distinctive a voice, but she sings quite well, and brings a delightfully fastidious manner to the character, never descending into the saccharine. Miranda is less successful. At least in this instance, he seems to be one of those performers who seem perfect for the stage, where distance tones down his slightly overbearing persona before it reaches an audience’s eyes and ears; on screen, he comes on too strong, badgering rather than casually enticing. Perhaps over time he can moderate that toothsome smile, but now it’s too much, and his dancing is also overly strenuous.
It’s Miranda’s misfortune that he must anchor a couple of big ensemble production numbers in which he’s accompanied by what amounts to a chorus line from Forty-Second Street. They’re among the elaborately choreographed sequences most reminiscent of that flop sixties musical (the choreography is by Marshall and John DeLuca). But even they pale beside Streep’s scene, to a tune titled “Turning Turtle,” which she belts out with a heavy accent while dancing around that revolving room—much less winningly than Fred Astaire once did. The song is one of the worst in the movie, and the whole sequence is like the intended show-stopper in a Broadway bomb that stops the show for all the wrong reasons.
Generally, the quieter numbers work better, including Blunt’s “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and Whishaw’s “A Conversation.” Otherwise, though, Whishaw is pretty much wasted, though not as much as Mortimer, who has little to do but smile vigorously. The kids are alright and Walters brings some of her natural wildness to Ellen, while Firth carries off his Snidely Whiplash impression with the élan of a practiced ham. But there’s a curiously unfunny bit by David Warner as an elderly admiral who shoots off cannons from his home next to the Banks domicile. On the other hand, devotees will be overjoyed when Van Dyke shows up for a cameo toward the close, and equally so when Angela Lansbury leads the final number, “Nowhere to Go But Up.”
That song title, unfortunately, isn’t a proper anthem for “Mary Poppins Returns,” because it’s certainly not an improvement on the predecessor it strives so determinedly to emulate. Still, parents searching for familiar family-friendly fare (especially those with a soft spot for the first movie) are likely to embrace it—something that “Poppins” creator P.L. Travers probably would not do; she reportedly disliked the 1964 picture and doubtlessly would be even less pleased with this one.