MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – They can still make ’em like they used to

With a sequel that comes over a half-century after the original movie, there are bound to be nitpickers who can find nothing better to do than pick it apart. Are the songs in Mary Poppins Returns as memorable as those in Mary Poppins (1964)? Is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s attempt at a British accent as inauthentic as Dick Van Dyke’s was in the first film? These are questions best left to movie historians. For a movie such as this, the only valid question is, does it work on your terms personally? For me, it was practically perfect.

There are two kinds of Disney movies. There are the silly ones which practically declare from the outset that they’re harmless falderdash (The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor). Then there are the best kind of Disney movies that unashamedly aim straight for your heart (the Disney cartoon classics, the original Santa Clause, and yes, even Mary Poppins). There was every reason to believe that Mary Poppins Returns, even if well-intentioned, would end up in the first batch. But a half-hour into the new movie, I got that Omigaw-I’m-a-kid-again feeling, and I knew I’d been sucked in.

The movie’s setting is about 20 years after that of the first film. Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) are now adults but still live together in their old family home, Jane seeing to the needs of Michael and his three children — John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) — since Michael’s wife died the previous year.

A pair of bank lawyers visit the Banks to inform them that they have five days to pay back a loan that Michael took against the house, or they will be evicted from it. Eventually, they realize that their father owned shares in the bank, and those could be used to pay off the loan. If only they can find those shares — and have them recognized by Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), Michael’s boss at the bank and an old family acquaintance who might not be as kind as he initially appears.

With the Banks family in dire straits again, there is nothing for it but for magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to come floating into their lives again — this time via a kite, in one of this sequel’s many wonderful nods to the first movie. And Blunt takes this ethereal character, chucks any fears about comparisons to Julie Andrews out the window, and makes it her own. Blunt’s Poppins is nicely nonchalant about the many miracles she manages to perform for the Bankses. She also plays Mary a bit more vainly than Andrews did — but if you could go flying on an umbrella and turning bathtubs into oceans, wouldn’t you be a bit smug too?

The movie feels like, not just classic Disney, but classic movies where everyone involved seems to have given everything to make their movie the best possible. Co-writer/choreographer/director Rob Marshall knows his way around a movie musical (Chicago) and was the right person to helm this — its two hours fly by. The songs, co-written by Hollywood music wizard Marc Shaiman, invite comparison to The Sherman Brothers’ 1964 score, and they’re mostly worthy of that comparison. (If you don’t get a lump in your throat when Poppins comforts the children about their late mother with “The Place Where the Lost Things Go,” you’re a stronger moviegoer than I am.) The old-fashioned, full-bodied animation-and-live-action sequences dazzled me more than anything since Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

And that cast! Miranda plays Jack, a street lamp lighter who serves as Mary’s merry Greek chorus. Maybe his British accent isn’t perfect, but his enthusiasm more than makes up for it. One critic described the three Banks children as “somewhat undifferentiated,” with which I heartily disagree. Saleh, Davies, and especially Dawson are the best sort of child actors, ones who act like real children instead of cutesy moppets. Finally, there are three Big Actor supporting roles that will be a delight to anyone who doesn’t already know about them, so I’ll skip the spoiler and let you discover them for yourself.

The genre of Hollywood movie musical has gone the way of the Hollywood Western — mostly moribund, but occasionally done once more just to show that it can still be done. Mary Poppins Returns shows they can still be done in the grand old style, and that they ought to be done a lot more often.