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Emily Blunt stars in Mary Poppins Returns.

Photo Credit: Jay Maidment/Disney Enterprises

  • Mary Poppins Returns
  • Directed by Rob Marshall
  • Written by David Magee, Rob Marshall and John DeLuca
  • Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Whishaw
  • Classification PG
  • 132 minutes

rating

For those raised on the P.L. Travers books about a magical nanny and the London family she oversees, the 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins was always a foreign land. The songs were hummable, the mix of animation and live action was novel, but everything about its big, breezy style, from Julie Andrews’s winning smile to Dick Van Dyke’s execrable Cockney accent, set it well apart from its idiosyncratic literary source.

Now, as Disney returns to the venerable property to produce a belated sequel, there is lots more faux Britannia on offer, but thank goodness, there is also Emily Blunt. Few stars under contract to the Mouse could ever risk creating a character as dry, disapproving and self-satisfied as the original Mary Poppins, but where Andrews was all sunshine and light, Blunt is charmingly crisp and superior. Her winning performance makes this new nanny a keeper.

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To also give the screenwriting team its due, the concept for this sequel plausibly moves the action forward by 25 years. Mr. and Mrs. Banks are long gone and, in the midst of the Depression, Michael Banks is now middle-aged, a struggling artist, part-time bank clerk and widower who has inherited the house at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane and lives there with his three young children. The children – for the most part, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson are sweet rather than precious – are admirably self-sufficient characters, but the house is in chaos and the debt collector is at the door when Mary Poppins returns to set things right.

She is helped by Jack, a lamplighter who used to work for Bert the chimney sweep, and is played, in a bit of star casting as implausible as Van Dyke’s, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will remain better known as the creator and star of the Broadway show Hamilton. Another of the nanny’s former charges then rounds out the characters: The reliable Emily Mortimer plays Michael’s sister Jane who, taking after her suffragist mother, works as a union organizer. The plot revolves around the family’s attempts to find some share certificates to repay a loan before the bank – the same one where Mr. Banks once laboured and Michael has succeeded him – repossesses the house.

But mainly, of course, this is an excuse to set a nanny, three children and a lamplighter to singing and dancing. There are lush and entertaining production numbers throughout, of which the centrepiece is a trip inside a china bowl to a music hall inhabited by cartoon animals. Here, the filmmakers, led by director Rob Marshall, successfully resurrect the animation style of the 1964 version that so artfully folded children’s cartoons into the live action.

The concept only founders when it forces Mary Poppins up on the music hall stage. There, Blunt loses sight of her carefully crafted character beneath an unfortunate wig that makes her look like Sally Bowles. More smartly, the sequence is used to foreshadow the evil machinations of Mr. Wilkins, the chairman of the bank and a villain played with admirable restraint by Colin Firth. There is a less successful cameo from Meryl Streep – and less successful CGI trickery – as she plays the Russian shopkeeper Topsy, taking tea on the ceiling of premises so cluttered with stuff that the supposedly upside-down setting is hard to read.

On the other hand, the penultimate production number pays another loving tribute to the movie’s predecessor, as an energetic display of bicycle-riding lamplighters echoes the dance of the chimney-sweeps in the original. Here, Miranda earns his keep performing choreography so ebullient you can almost forgive his Cockney accent – it’s only a mild improvement over that of Van Dyke, who has a small cameo himself.

With strong performances in a scheme of both sensible updates and clever revivals, Mary Poppins Returns is as impressive as the 1964 version it joyfully recalls – except in one key area. More than 50 years later, the Sherman Brothers songs (Let’s Go Fly a Kite, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and the Oscar-winning Chim Chim Cher-ee) remain classics, while here the music is pleasant but bland. It seems unlikely that in 2070, middle-aged people will still be able to hum any of these tunes – although no doubt they, too will fondly remember a certain flying nanny.

Mary Poppins Returns opens Dec. 19.

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