Sometimes, the way a movie impresses itself upon you makes its actual quality irrelevant. That being said, Mary Poppins Returns is a good movie. It has delightful visuals, charming music, sharp wit and a “don’t forget, I can do anything” performance from Emily Blunt. There are probably things wrong with it, but they don’t come to mind right away, because the preeminent reaction to Mary Poppins Returns is a warm welcome back. You just want to run into its arms.
Did you forget the original Mary Poppins? How dare you. The 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke is on the Disney Mount Rushmore. Did you know it earned 13 Oscar nominations, the most ever for a Disney movie? Did you know it was nominated for Best Picture, one of only four Disney movies to have that distinction? Did you know Julie Andrews won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actress as Mary Poppins? That’s all true. Mary Poppins is an unimpeachable, all-time movie.
And in large part, Mary Poppins Returns banks on its predecessor’s legendary status. There are lots of callbacks and references to the original, and instead of inventing anything totally new, this sequel mostly offers up twists and swirls of the classic flavors you enjoyed 54 years ago. That’s not a bad thing in the theater, but upon reflection, perhaps it leaves a little to be desired.
Regardless, we begin this movie with Jane and Michael Banks once again in hopeless need of a nanny. They’re grown up now. Michael has children of his own, but his wife has died and his home is being threatened by the bank. Cue Mary Poppins’ descent by umbrella out of a stormy London sky, back to instruct the children (and their children, as it were) once again on the joys of imagination and the wonders that persist while growing up.
It’s here we must acknowledge Emily Blunt as one of the great superheroes of 2018. She already earned that title after her power-surge performance in A Quiet Place, but if you were bracing yourself for a pale imitation of Julie Andrews’ award-winning turn, have no fear. Blunt is defiantly good.
This is one of the most natural takeovers of any part in recent memory. Blunt nails the Poppins fundamentals—the unflappable poise, the magnetic charisma, the unique blend of gentleness and discipline and play—but she also flexes a dynamite singing voice and a charming sense of humor. It’s an undeniable performance that’s sure to earn your trust in Blunt for as long as she’s working. Even the firmest skeptic is sure to be converted by movies’ end.
And most of the ingredients around Blunt are beautiful and imaginative in supporting her. The bar for technological innovation in movies is of course much higher today than it was in the 60s, but Mary Poppins Returns still does a marvelous job of blending its cartoon and live-action elements in a style that feels exciting to watch. It creates a strong feeling of magic, and even though that spell fades slightly with the songs, which don’t accomplish the impossible task of equalling the originals, the music still delivers on a pure sensory level. You might not hum any of these tunes into the New Year, but Mary Poppins Returns revives everything from the first movie’s tap-dance tune to its street-urchin epic to its whistle-driven jaunt, and it does so with confidence. The beats might be the same, but like any good popular track, the result is pure pleasure.
Some might find the best moments of Mary Poppins Returns to actually be apart from song and dance. It’s here the movie—and its main character—distinguishes itself most from other children’s fare. Mary Poppins is not crass, crude or lowbrow like other kids-movie leads. On the contrary, she’s sophisticated and intelligent, but she proves those things never have to come at the expense of fun.
The whole movie buys into that idea of not dumbing things down for children, even when the storytelling goes toward the bizarre. Meryl Streep plays Mary Poppins’ kooky cousin, but her eccentricity never feels obnoxious. Lin-Manuel Miranda is playful and light on his feet as this movie’s Van-Dyke-ian working-class hero, but he’s never slapstick or bafoonish. Even some old favorites among the cast (no spoilers here) never diminish themselves, and the result is a movie that’s unabashedly for kids but also unabashedly self-assured. Mary Poppins Returns is nothing if not dignified. It affirms no one trusts kids more, or gives them more benefit of the doubt, then Disney.
Much will be made of how welcome it is to see Mary Poppins again in 2018. That’s a justified feeling. Mary Poppins is disciplined and stern and regal, but also charming, lovely and nurturing. That duality is rare nowadays, but of course urgently necessary.
That longing feeling matters, but more than anything, Mary Poppins Returns delivers a brand of escapism that’s still honest about reality. This is a movie about pain and loss. It’s about facing those things down through the strength of your imagination and the love in your heart. That’s so much better than a fantasy movie that just takes you away for a couple hours then plunks you right back down amid your problems. With Mary Poppins Returns, not only do you have the joy of seeing something aspirational and better than reality, but you receive a nanny’s advice on how to use those aspirations to make things around you a little better.
These are not easy times, and Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t shelter you from that truth. Rather, it bolsters you in the midst of your struggle, so when things are topsy-turvy you can find a truer joy than you would otherwise. That’s a joy that can exist alongside your trouble, so when you tap into it, you can have faith it will sustain itself. Our imaginations are powerful, but they’re fueled by our sense of possibility, and no one makes things feel more possible than Mary Poppins.