There’s magic and charm, dazzling dance numbers and a genuine show-stopper in“Mary Poppins Returns.”
But you have to take this overlong and perhaps overdue sequel to Walt Disney’s 1964 classic on its own terms, wash those unforgettable tunes out of your head and maybe forget Julie Andrews’ stern but warm turn in the title role.
It’s more somber and downbeat, more in the tradition of Disney’s sad but droll film about the making of “Mary Poppins,” “Saving Mr. Banks.”
There is no “Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” or “Chim Chim Cheree” among the nine new songs, though composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Whittman (Broadway’s “Hairspray”) come up with a couple of minor jewels of their own.
Replacing the joyously rubber-legged hoofer Dick Van Dyke proves to be harder than getting a new Mary Poppins. Lin Manuel Miranda is a “Hamilton” sized talent — at the keyboard. As a singer and dancer, he’s adequate. So try not to notice how much editing there is in his dance numbers.
The New Mary? Let me be Blunt. Emily B. rescues this picture just as surely as Mary Poppins made her name “Saving Mr. Banks.” She puts her stamp on the character — sharp sarcastic edges without the “Spoonful of Sugar” — and ensures Mary Poppins casts her helpful spell on another generation of the hard-luck Banks family.
Decades have passed, and London is in the middle of “The Great Slump,” which we labeled more accurately “The Great Depression” here in America.
Chimney sweeps are rare, but lamplighters are still lighting and dousing the gas streetlamps of smoky, gloomy London. That’s what Jack (Miranda) does for a living. When he’s not singing “(Underneath) The Lovely London Sky,” a rather half-hearted opening (pre-credits) number.
Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is newly widowed and depressed, overwhelmed with three kids to raise in the old Banks townhouse on Cherry Lane. His days as “an artist” are over. He clerks at the local bank, which is about to foreclose. His world is unraveling.
His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a labor activist, still single, but doing what she can to help Michael and the dotty and dyspeptic Ellen (the adorable Julie Walters of “Mamma Mia!”) with Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson).
But if Dad and Aunt Jane cannot find their father’s old stock certificates, Banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) will have his attorneys (Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) take the house. They have a week to track down the paperwork.
It’s a good thing Georgie finds granddad’s old kite, which his father has tossed. A windy day in London town, and there she is — “Mary Poppins Returns,” via a kite string. She’s got a hint of Nanny McPhee to her, which considering the cacophony these kids kick up, is a good thing.
“I’ll thank you not to dawdle.”
Whatever Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) can do to save the adults, the skeptical kids — “We don’t NEED a nanny!” — are won over in an instant. Director Rob Marshall (“Into the Woods,” “Chicago”) pulls out all the Disney stops in her first two absolutely dazzling numbers.
“Can You Imagine That?” sees her taking the unbathed children upon the sea — in their tub, which becomes a dinghy — and under the sea to show them “Everything is possible, even the IMpossible.”
And “The Royal Doulton Music Hall,” my favorite, has Mary leading the children onto the scene depicted on a fine piece of family china (Royal Doulton) the kids have cracked. They’re drawn into an animated rendition of an old fashioned English Music Hall. Old school 2D (hand-drawn cell-style) animation one-ups and two-ups the actor/animation interaction of the original “Mary Poppins.”
The ballad “Where Do the Lost Things Go?” is a lament for the past, childhood and that missing stock certificate. Blunt manages every one of these tunes with panache and skill, even if she is no operetta endorsed soprano with a two-octave+ range, like Andrews.
Fixing the cracked bowl is something that can only be managed by the wildly eccentric Madame Topsy (Meryl Streep, vamping to beat the band), who sings “Turning Turtle,” about the topsy turvy nature of her world (one day a month). Hearing Streep rhyme “turning turtle” with “loose girdle” is one for the ages.
This film’s version of “Chim Chim Cheree” is “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” and involves Jack and his fellow lamplighters. It’s more visually striking than memorably tuneful. The choreography — dancers hanging from lampposts — is fun, but you can’t help but notice the flurry of edits it took to make the dancing impressive.
It’s a typical modern musical with a multicultural cast and visual grace-notes — a bit with the lamplighters riding off into the foggy gloom on their bicycles (a few BMX tricks included) is stunning.
But whatever it took to make this “Mary Poppins” light on its feet, it’s rare that the tone turns sunny. The gloomy start (I’d have cut that opening number) and pervasive fog and heavy subject matter — death, lost childhood innocence, impending poverty, etc. — never let it soar.
Trotting out a few screen legends — the great David Warner is Admiral Boom, a character straight out of Dickens and the original “Mary Poppins,” Angela Lansbury has a nice closing curtain number — “Nowhere to Go but Up,” and Dick Van Dyke from the 1964 film shows up for a little song and dance — helps.
It’s just so hard to forget that close-to-perfect first film and so very hard for “Mary Poppins Returns” to ever escape its show and trip its own “Light Fantastic.”
MPAA Rating: PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action
Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury and Meryl Streep
Credits: Directed by Rob Marshall, screenplay by David Magee, based on the Mary Travers books. A Walt Disney release.
Running time: 2:10