The daunting task of helming the sequel to the House of Mouse’s beloved 1964 classic falls on Rob Marshall’s shoulders as he directs Emily Blunt, who steps into Julie Andrews’ iconic shoes as the magical nanny with the talking umbrella. Two decades after the events of the first film, she parachutes from the clouds to Cherry Orchard Lane, where the Banks family have fallen on hard times once more. Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are no longer the wide-eyed, lovable scamps she once knew: she’s a union activist trying to console her widowed brother, as he struggles to raise his three children while facing eviction from their family home. With some help from Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter with a more convincing Cockney accent than a certain Mr. Van Dyke, Mary Poppins will make sure that the littluns understand that “nothing’s gone forever, only out of place” and that it’s “today or never”.
Mary Poppins Returns obviously has a high bar to clear, given that its predecessor is a film held up by many as the cinematic balm to soothe every ill. Fifty-four years in the making, this continuation isn’t practically perfect in every way, but it does manage to conjure enough of the old magic to make it a sequel worth embracing. This is chiefly due to Emily Blunt, who is terrific in the central role. Mannered and warm, hinting at mischief and channelling Julie Andrews whilst making the role her own, she’s a great fit for the character. Her interactions with the children are a joy to watch, especially a bathtime adventure where we get to appreciate just how good the central young actors Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson are. Blunt ensures the medicine goes down by dispelling the memory of less enchanting aspects, including a disposable sequence centred around a cameoing Meryl Streep, and the inescapable fact that the songs this time around just don’t have the earworm quality of those from the original.
A more grievous issue is that David Magee’s script plays it a bit too safe. The narrative sticks very closely to the template of the original, so much so that the film feels almost like a remake at times. This crinkle could have been ironed out had it been addressed through the character of Mary Poppins. Blunt’s performance paves the way for this – she gives us occasional glimpses of melancholia, a flickering sadness in her eyes – but these hints at a nuanced inner life are ultimately unexplored. Had the filmmakers endeavoured to explore the titular character more deeply, this nostalgic sequel might have been something really special. That said, it’d take a cold-hearted resistance not to get wrapped up in its comforting embrace, as it delivers a joyous slice of festive entertainment. Considering the benchmark set by the original, that makes Mary Poppins Returns a minor triumph.
Mary Poppins Returns | Directed by Rob Marshall (US, 2018), with Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer. Starts December 20.
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