Out Wednesday, December 19 is “Mary Poppins Returns,” a long-awaited follow up to the 1964 classic. Though this film is a sequel, not a remake, of “Mary Poppins” it is perfectly accessible to fans young and old, whether they have seen the Julie Andrews original or not. It is the perfect film for the holiday season, the very definition of “heart-warming.”
“Mary Poppins Returns” revisits the characters of 17 Cherry Tree Lane, but tells a very different story. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Jack sets the scene, taking the audience through his morning route as a lamplighter in Depression Era London. We reunite with Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) in the same home, in chaos following the death of Michael’s wife. After discovering that they could lose their childhood home, Michael sends the children out to scrimp for groceries, and along the way they follow a mysterious kite bearing Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). The nanny guides the family as they strive to keep their home and reconnect with their childhood selves.
Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way. Her performance perfectly balances an arch fastidiousness with a childlike outlook. She smoothly embodies the iconic character, prim yet devious, proper but silly, biting and kind. While Lin Manuel Miranda’s cockney accent is pretty bad, it fits well with the over-earnest demeanor of the character, a functional caricature of a perpetually sunny, impoverished workman. As the president of the bank trying to repossess 17 Cherry Tree Lane, Collin Firth is a delightfully mustache-twirling villain, perfectly crafted to remind a new generation of children how evil banks are.
While “Mary Poppins Returns” finds constant touchstones to the original film, it does not dwell in the past or overuse these references. It also tweaks the need for Mary Poppins to fit a generation of children far removed from those of the 1960s. Rather than corralling out of control Michael and Jane, Poppins’s task is to teach the Annabel, John and Georgie how to be children again after growing up too quickly following the death of their mother. She caters to their dormant imagination and reintroduces them to the logical nonsense of a child’s mind.
The film features an extended animation sequence where Mary Poppins and the children fall into the scenery of a China bowl. This provides the frame for an elaborate and fanciful performance number as well as a high stakes chase sequence revisited later in the film. The sequence blends live action characters with animated scenes in the style of “Sword in the Stone” and “The Jungle Book.”
“Mary Poppins Returns” also does something that many musicals no longer do: tell stories with songs. Rather than harnessing the talent in the musical to create generic, “radio ready” songs with only thematic connections to the film, composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman creates songs that advance story and rise to the expectations of the clever wordplay of the original film.
If this movie has a weakness, it is a glut of celebrity cameos, in particular Meryl Streep’s hair brained portrayal of Mary Poppins’s cousin Topsy, whose diversion of the plot pushes the film to be about 15 minutes too long.
Though it has nothing to do with the holidays, “Mary Poppins Returns” is the essential film of the season. It is warm, funny and clever, sure to delight kids and pull adults into the fantastical world of Mary Poppins, Jack and the Bankses.