Technically, Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel. The new live-action Disney musical comes 54 years after the Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke fronted original, offering a new chapter in the tale of its eponymous nanny. However, it sure feels like a remake, where all the best bits of the original are swapped out for shockingly similar substitutes.
Decades after her first visit, the Banks patriarch is in trouble once more. So Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes down from the clouds to save him, and by extension his children. This time the problem is not fussy George and his wonky work/life balance. It’s mournful Michael (Ben Whishaw), a recent widower and father of three, who is at risk of losing the family home to the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. In place of a suffragette wife, Michael has his activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), whose only characteristics are being sweet to her family and carrying protest signs. The lovable chimney sweep Burt is away, but taking his place as the plucky laborer with a heart of gold is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter who’s ever ready with a smile and song. And once more the Banks children will join Mary on wild adventures where they’ll cross paths with singing cartoon animals, a giggling eccentric who hangs out on the ceiling, dancing laborers, and a grim banker with horrid priorities.
Mary Poppins Returns is charming, but it’s a dogged retread. By playing so closely to outline of the original—even using familiar melodies in its instrumentals—it’s impossible not to compare the two, and by comparison, the sequel suffers. For starters, Miranda is darling as Jack. Like Van Dyke, he is winsome, warm, and has a pretty questionable English accent. (I accept that as part of the fun—and frankly—mythos of Disney’s Mary Poppins.) Miranda shines, clearly delighted to his core to bring his Broadway showmanship to the big screen. He’s at his best when duetting with Blunt, but even enchants in an undercooked romantic subplot. However, Manuel is not the committed comedian that Van Dyke was in the first film. And despite director Rob Marshall’s attempt to spice up Jack’s sections with a rap break, parkour, and a BMX dance number (more like Mary Poppin Wheelies), I missed the simple slapstick of Burt’s.
As for Blunt, she is utterly beguiling as Mary Poppins and does right by Andrews with every raised eyebrow and brilliant smile. Yes yes, she’s practically perfect in every way, embodying the character’s blend of whimsy, heart and smugness in jaunty musical numbers, side-eyed scorn, and tender whispers. But my favorite Poppins is always when Mary gets a bit dirty. In Mary Poppins, Andrews went a smidge low-brow in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” then pulled out a compact to powder her nose with a bit of soot to get down with the chimney sweeps. In Mary Poppins Returns, she briefly trades her conservative nanny attire for a snazzy vaudeville outfit and bouncing bob haircut to do a zippy number with some bits of bawdy humor. It’s nothing that will give parents cause to worry, but an exhilarating peek at the woman behind the wonder.
As for the rest of the cast, the Banks children, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson, are adorable and appropriately wide-eyed. Whishaw and Mortimer’s talents are squandered in one-note roles that demand them to moan and giggle respectively. Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, and Angela Lansbury pop by for colorful cameos, and Julie Walters brings a delicious verve as Ellen, the oft-aghast maid originally played by the hilarious Hermione Baddeley. But the best bit of this whole big-budgeted, star-stuffed, CGI-enhanced endeavor was when it concedes to the superiority of the original. Dick Van Dyke makes a brief appearance, and he dances! I literally cheered. Perhaps it’s nostalgia giving an unfair advantage, but seeing his broad smile, sparkling eyes, and fancy footwork gave me a greater thrill than the rest of the film combined. Which leaves me to wonder why?
Why put all this effort into a “remake” that is really a ravenous recycling? The obvious answer is money. Make the package familiar enough to lure generations of fans to the theater. Maybe kids today don’t know the original, so they won’t compare. Or maybe the public will decide that Mary Poppins Returns mimicking the original is a feature, not a failing. For me, this is a missed opportunity, garishly wasting talent and creativity.
Overall, I enjoyed Mary Poppins Returns. But as often as I was delighted by the perky performances, the new music of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and the vibrant costumes of three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, I was frustrated by the blatant plagiarism. Marshal and his fellow screenwriters, David Magee, and John DeLuca, had an opportunity to tell a fresh new story, taking this iconic world-changing nanny anywhere they want! And they chose the same path that was masterfully forged in 1964. At first, it’s fun to catch these references and see the return of Admiral Boom, but the mirroring makes the plot turn tedious, and before long the fun festers. So I was left to wonder what could have been if Marshall and Disney had trusted audiences to follow them on a fresh adventure, as surprising and imaginative as its heroine deserved.