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MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a Spoonful of Sugar Without the Medicine

MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a Spoonful of Sugar Without the Medicine

Close your eyes and listen to “A Spoonful of Sugar,” the beloved, medicinal track from the original 1964 Mary Poppins. You’ll hear Julie Andrews, but after watching Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns, I wouldn’t blame you if Emily Blunt popped into your head instead. That’s how fully the British actress occupies the iconic role, with the same sharp tongue and magnetic charm. But Blunt isn’t interested in simple mimicry. Instead, Mary Poppins Returns feels in step with its predecessor while boldly harnessing its own unique energy. There’s a lot to love – almost too much.

The story picks up twenty years after the first film. The Banks children have grown into adults; Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a recent widower and father of three, and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is an unmarried labor organizer. In his grief, Michael has lost his childhood dreaminess, which is further compounded when the bank comes for the family home. That’s when Mary Poppins arrives, pulled back into the Banks’ lives by a kite in the sky. She’s there to tend to Michael’s children – Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) – but also to the grown Bankses, who may need her most of all.

Blunt shines in the role, relaying Andrews’ clipped voice and head tilts, but sparkling just a little extra in the eyes. She comes with all of Mary’s unique quirks: a talking umbrella, a handbag with endless depths, a reflection with a personality of its own. Like Andrews’ Mary, she also buries her heart under a mask of firm English etiquette, one she removes when it’s time to inspire tenderness and creativity in the children, who have had to grow up very fast and very suddenly after the loss of their mother. Mary lets them be children again, taking them on underwater bath-time adventures, or leaping into the art of a porcelain bowl, which is brought to life in the classic Disney animation style. She also teaches them, through song, how to grieve. “Nothing’s gone forever, only out of place,” she intones, a phrase they touchingly repeat to their father later on, when he needs to hear it most. That’s what Mary Poppins does best: gives words to the things hardest to say, and brings light to the darkest corners.

But Mary isn’t the only character who shines here. Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda steps into the Dick Van Dyke chimney sweep role, only now he’s a chimney sweep-turned-lamp-lighter, who met Mary as a child when he worked for Bert. The two have an easy camaraderie, and Miranda fits right in on the big screen. In a standout sequence, they put on a two-person show in the animated bowl, dancing and singing cabaret-style while flocked by the penguins from the original film.

A lot of other flashy names work their way into Returns, like Colin Firth as the villainous William “Weatherall” Wilkins, the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, who’s after the Banks’ house. Meryl Streep also shows up in a glorified cameo as Mary’s cousin (re-purposing, of all things, her accent from Sophie’s Choice), as do two Disney veterans who – if you managed to miss the trailers – I won’t spoil here. All of them add to the film’s many confections, although Streep’s appearance in particular felt a little too much; the film hits pause for her scene, which wouldn’t otherwise matter, but in an already long film, it feels a little superfluous.

That feeling of excess extends into a few other sequences, like a late-act routine with the lamplighters that feels tacked-on. Marc Shaiman’s score is infectious – with little winks and nods to the first film – but there’s a lot of it, so much that it’s hard to pick one standout song that lets anyone shine. There are no “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee”‘s here, which is a bit of a bummer, although time and more listens to the soundtrack may change my mind.

But those minor complaints don’t add up to much; overall, Mary Poppins Returns is a delightful, big movie that not only wears its heart on its sleeve, but rides it like a balloon into the sky. The film’s final sequence makes that quite literal, as characters float through the air in a dizzying number that is impossible to hate, unless yours is the coldest of souls. In times of darkness and danger, flying through the sky in a dance of imagination is just the sort of elixir movie-going audiences deserve. Mary Poppins arrives exactly when she’s needed. Mary Poppins Returns did, too.

4 out of 5

Images: Disney

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