Whenever Disney mines their history for nostalgia, be it through a live action remake of a beloved animated film or a sequel to a long moribund franchise, it is natural to be skeptical. These days, with the speed and regularity that they churn these things out, we're pretty much stuck being skeptical all day every day. After years of exhuming the likes of The Jungle Book and Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast (and the impending Mulan and The Lion King and and and and…)to extreme box office success, they’ve turned to the legacy of Mary Poppins for their latest bit of necromancy. Disney’s history with P.L. Travers’ books and legacy is, let’s say complicated (look no further than the craven propaganda job Saving Mr. Banks), but that hasn’t stopped them from forging ahead with a direct sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, five and a half decades after the original film was released.
Disney has tapped veteran musical director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine, Into the Woods), and he definitely makes this into a jazz-handy, all-singing-all-dancing sort of Broadway musical affair. The conceit is that the children from Mary Poppins, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) have grown up and find the life of a grown-up to be a struggle, especially when Michael’s wife and mother of the three children (Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson) unexpectedly dies. Michael struggles to keep the household together, falling behind on his bills to the point that the bank, led by Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth) comes calling for repossession if he can’t pay up within five days. Amidst the chaos, a familiar face arrives in the form of Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who takes the children under her wing while Michael scrambles to save his house. But with Mary’s help, and that of Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a charming lamplighter with a bit of a crush on June, things just might turn out okay after all.
There are certainly ups and downs throughout Mary Poppins Returns. Blunt is a delight throughout, gorgeous, stern but loving in that turn of the century sort of way, and she’s always got that spark of whimsy and imagination lingering just out of view of the fuddy duddy parents who have lost their way. Her singing voice is strong (this is her second collaboration with Marshall after Into the Woods) and her sense of dress is immaculate. There’s no particular reason for Mary Poppins Returns to exist, but Blunt at least manages to make a case by herself. Beyond her, though, things get more than a little shaky. Miranda’s cockney accent is pretty terrible, though I guess that’s in keeping with Dick Van Dyke, but it remains a distraction at best and a source of annoyance at worst. For his first big screen role post-Hamilton, it honestly leaves a bit to be desired. He’s got a charming smile and a twinkle in the eye, but no substance. Ben Whishaw is perfectly fine playing the generally thankless role of “father figure who doesn’t believe in fun or imagination,” though hearing him speak of marmalade does make one wistful for Paddington 2, which is the much better slice of British charm.
But what’s most damning of Mary Poppins Returns is how completely unnecessary and tacked on so much of it feels. There are huge departures from the main plot in order to shoehorn in additional song and dance numbers (one is particularly egregious, simply existing as a reason to have Meryl Streep show up and then immediately disappear). Written by veteran composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman, there are a few earworms (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is catchy as hell), but they don’t mesh well with the extended instrumental sequences stitched in to accommodate the dancing. Colin Firth’s villain is both an unscrupulous amoral slimeball and a stickler for the rules, which makes no sense whatsoever and only manages to make him toothless. At two hours and ten minutes, the film outstays its welcome by at least half an hour, with each successive song extending longer and longer into tedium. And that’s before all the lamplighters start busting out X-Games style BMX tricks with their bikes in 1930s England and the whole thing wraps up with a deus ex machina that renders everything that came before it pointless. The aesthetic is constantly muddled with puzzling decisions like this, showing that Marshall doesn’t really have a sense of what he wants to do, other than churn out another piece of weaponized nostalgia.
It’s a shame, because there is at least a bit to like about the first half of Mary Poppins Returns. Mary’s first big routine is a visual dazzler in an underwater paradise full of all sorts of sea creatures (amid a push to get the children to bathe), and the expected extended animated sequence is simply stunning, a reminder of what we’re missing now that Disney has completely left 2-D hand-drawn animation behind. Even a little taste of it feels revelatory. But these moments serve to do little more than remind us of what a bummer the rest of the movie is, weighed down with bloat and mired in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. When Disney announced they were making Mary Poppins Returns, the first thought was “why now?” Why make a new Mary Poppins movie 54 years later? It’s clear the mouse house didn’t exactly have ideas bursting forth demanding more stories be told. And Mary Poppins Returns proves that the ideas in fact were not there, but that clearly didn’t stop anyone. This film fits nicely into the continuum of Disney films that revisit a beloved franchise later only to have found the children of the original lost their youthful exuberance and imagination in adulthood. That approach didn’t exactly work for Hook (and I can’t speak to Christopher Robin, though it didn’t exactly inspire confidence from afar), and it doesn’t work here either.