It’s been a long 54 years since Julie Andrews floated down from the clouds as Mary Poppins (LBJ was president, The Beatles were singing “A Hard Day’s Night”, milk was under a buck, etc.), which begs the question, “Do we really need to go back to Cherry Tree Lane?” Unsurprisingly, Disney thinks we do, so along comes Mary Poppins Returns, a better-than-average movie on its own, but a pale comparison to the original. And it’s a comparison that’s all too easy to make, as the sequel shadows the 1964 film in almost every way (and, no, not in the “practically perfect” sense).
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) injects plenty of life into the film, filling it with characters and costumes that stand out brilliantly against the backdrop of a moody, foggy London, but the overall tone is decidedly more serious. And though there isn’t a single musical number that will linger in your brain any longer than it takes to walk out of the theater, the tunes are pleasing enough, including the “Jolly Holiday” fill-in “A Cover is Not the Book” and the chimney-sweep ditty “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, which attempts to fill the “Step in Time” slot.
Lest we get ahead of ourselves, the story begins on adult siblings Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (a too-serious Ben Winshaw) Banks, all grown up from their days as kids in the original film. As Michael’s wife has just passed, Jane has moved in to help rear her brother’s three kids. A knock on the door reveals lawyers with the news that Michael has defaulted on a loan and has only five days to pay it back, or he risks losing his Cherry Tree Lane home.
Fortunately, there’s a breeze blowing, and Mary (Emily Blunt) descends from the heavens with her valise and umbrella just in time to help set things right. And of course, there’s a chimney sweep to also lend a hand, in the person of Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who we’re told was an apprentice of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in the original film.
The Banks clan heads to the old Fidelity Fiduciary Bank to sort out the issue, but kindly bank manager (Colin Firth) is revealed to be an underhanded snake, eager to get his hands on the Banks home. Oh, that he will get his comeuppance by the end of the film!
Meanwhile, Mary and the kids are off exploring a magical undersea world (after falling through the bottom of their bathtub) and then wind up with Jack in the hand-animated land inside the decorative design on the bowl the kids accidentally ding. Eventually, of course, the loan deadline approaches, and it’s up to Mary, all the sweeps in London, and a little Disney magic to save the day.
The best parts of the film, of course, are the ones that harken back to the original, including a priceless cameo from Van Dyke (who, yes, busts out a little soft shoe), the reprise of several characters (including the cannon-firing neighbor Admiral Boom and the family maid Ellen), and even a callback to the famous “Feed the Birds” number.
All in all, Mary Poppins Returns is a pleasing enough jaunt back to pre-war London. It may get a little too serious in parts and ridiculously goofy in others, but there’s certainly nothing here that will make you want to gag yourself on that spoonful of sugar.