You won't need a spoonful of sugar to enjoy Mary Poppins Returns, as the stellar production values, big musical numbers and Emily Blunt are all an absolute treat. Where it falters, though, is in its story, which noticeably labors and is a clear afterthought to the singing and dancing. This is forgivable, given the quality of the musical sequences, but it’s an obvious weakness that should have been handled better.
In the 1964 original, Mary (played by Julie Andrews, in an Oscar-winning turn) is a magical nanny who helps the struggling Banks family in pre-World War I London. This new film is set during the Great Depression, and follows a grown-up Michael (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) as they try to save Michael’s home when he defaults on a loan. Though he works at a bank, Michael can’t convince his boss Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth) to forgive the loan. In fact, Michael is so destitute, he can’t afford food for his housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) to cook for his kids Georgie (Joel Dawson), Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh). Clearly, they need help. Enter a brisk wind, stormy weather and, through the skies, Mary Poppins (Blunt). She's eager to assist the family once again by taking care of the kids while Michael and Jane handle adult matters.
Blunt makes an immediate impression, and shines. Her Mary is firm but caring, and can sing and dance with the best of ’em. This is especially important because she’s working opposite arguably the best there is on Broadway today: Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays lamppost operator Jack. Each succeeds wonderfully in solos (“Underneath the Lovely London Sky” for Miranda, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” for Blunt) and duets (“A Cover Is Not the Book”), and they're briefly joined by Angela Lansbury, Meryl Streep and Dick Van Dyke (!). The energy and imagination, coupled with a clear commitment to excellence, make the film a lush piece of eye and ear candy for all ages.
What’s more, director and co-writer Rob Marshall (Chicago) pays homage to the original Mary Poppins a number of times. The bottomless bag resurfaces in “Can You Imagine That?” and there’s an extended animated sequence with penguins and colorful costumes. And the “Step in Time” chimney sweepers’ routine is superbly reimagined in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”
It’s a bit sad, though, that Marshall, along with writers David Magee and John DeLuca, didn’t tell the story in a way that would adequately complement the high-energy musical numbers. The narrative is stilted at best. Plot details are largely irrelevant and/or lost, with the exception of the main storyline. What is there barely holds together. Better connective tissue would’ve made this not just a more coherent movie; it could have been a triumphant success.
Only time will tell if the songs in Mary Poppins Returns endure to be as memorable as those from the original. What is fair to say, however, is that it’s good enough to be a worthy sequel to its much-beloved predecessor. That's already high praise, indeed.