The most remarkable thing about “Mary Poppins Returns” is how much it had to work against, and how well it does that.
The 1964 Disney classic is one of those movies many people would prefer to be left untouched by a sequel, especially after so many years and so many generations of fans. No one else could be as purely magical as Julie Andrews, who won an Oscar for the title role, but Emily Blunt makes a logical and effective-in-her-own-way choice to succeed her among today’s top film actresses.
Thanks to her ever-ready parasol, Mary floats back into the lives of the now-grown Jane and Michael Banks, played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw. Michael is especially at loose ends over the loss of their mother, to the degree that the bank he works for is ready to repossess the Banks’ house. Saving it rests with an inheritance from the late Banks father, provided the offspring can find the certificate that proves they have it.
That’s where Mary steps in to help, dispensing more of the gentle guidance she’s so known for. Assisting her is Jack, a chimney sweep who’s more or less the successor to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert … and he’s played by “Hamilton” wunderkund Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose energy is a very big boost to the proceedings here (and the likely springboard to a great screen career, if he can keep finding appropriate projects).
Van Dyke himself makes an appearance here, and director Rob Marshall also makes use of such greats as Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Julie Walters and David Warner in telling the new story. ”New” is something of a qualifier, though; if you put this movie beside the first one, it’s easy to see there’s a parallel element for just about everything that has kept the original “Mary Poppins” so embraced by audiences.
It’s actually a smart formula, since straying too far from the initial P.L. Travers tale might have caused a backlash. “Mary Poppins” is just one of those things you don’t mess with, and the reverence toward it is very clear here. That’s also evident in the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, which have just enough freshness while evoking memories of the tunes composed so many years ago by the Sherman brothers.
Memories are no small factor in the case of “Mary Poppins Returns,” since more than a few viewers will see it through the prism of their experience with the mid-’60s movie. Much to its credit, just like the medicine enhanced by a spoonful of sugar, it goes down in a most delightful way.