Emily Blunt, holding the movie in her impeccably gloved hands, makes Mary Poppins her own. But this is no one-woman show; every role here is cast perfectly, from Lin-Manuel Miranda's song-and-dance man to Meryl Streep’s enchantingly goofball cameo. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
Some movies you await with happy anticipation; some with a faint, tingly worry that disappointment is about to tap at the door. Ever since its announcement, I’ve waited for “Mary Poppins Returns” with both of those feelings; the 1964 original, which I and countless others grew up watching, always seemed to me the absolute embodiment of movie magic, with Julie Andrews’ performance in the title role bringing joy with every re-watch. (I still know every word and note of every song; just ask me.) So the new sequel, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Emily Blunt, carried a rather heavy carpetbag, you might say. But I’ll just end the suspense right here: “Mary Poppins Returns,” made with palpable love for its predecessor, is glorious and gorgeous, and I adored it. (And I cried, more than once; if Mary Poppins was your magical nanny long ago, you might, too.)
Set some 20-odd years after the events of the first film (which places us sometime in the early 1930s, or as the movie puts it, The Great Slump), “Mary Poppins Returns” unfolds in a manner similar to the first movie, and to each of author P.L. Travers’ books. Mary Poppins arrives by means unexpected, takes the Banks children on a series of episodic adventures and vanishes once her work seems done. That’s what happens here, for a new generation: Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a recent widower and dreamy soul, is struggling to keep things together for his children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and George (Joel Dawson); his more practical sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), now a labor organizer (shades of her suffragette mother), tries to help. Despite a jaunty pre-credits song performed by a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, charm personified), this London at first seems made of gray clouds, damp sidewalks and Depression-era worry.
And then, the clouds part and there she is, calmly descending from the sky on Georgie’s kite, feet turned out and every hair in place. Blunt, holding the movie in her impeccably gloved hands, makes Mary Poppins her own from her first moments — crisply ordering the astonished Banks children about; smiling at the pleasure of her own reflection in a mirror; and conveying that Mary Poppins trademark above-it-all-ness, while concealing a warm heart. (And yes, she can sing; not quite Andrews caliber, but more than well enough.)
Blunt’s marvelous, but “Mary Poppins Returns” is no one-woman show; every role here is cast perfectly, from Miranda’s irresistible song-and-dance man to Meryl Streep’s enchantingly goofball cameo (in which she gets to recycle, to comic effect, her “Sophie’s Choice” accent) to the younger Banks children, each of whom is utterly adorable without the self-consciousness of so many movie kids. And two nonagenarian Disney veterans show up late in the film — if you haven’t heard their identities, I’m not about to spoil it for you — just to give the tear ducts another workout, and to remind us that singing and dancing knows no age.
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Marc Shaiman’s score, sprinkled with references to the original like sugar on a cookie, weaves a web of enchantment around the characters, and the all-new songs are like loving homages. You see the 1964 “Mary Poppins” everywhere — in the lettering of the opening credits; in the hand-drawn animation sequence (yes, the penguin waiters are back!); in the pale-gray London twilight and the grumpiness of Admiral Boom and the wet green of the park. It’s a movie that’s delicately haunted by beautiful ghosts; both that of the children’s late mother (in whose memory they, and their father, learn to find joy), and of the first movie itself. “I thought we’d never see you again,” says Jane slowly to Mary Poppins early on, her voice thick with wonder. I thought so, too. Never underestimate the power of movie magic.
★★★★ “Mary Poppins Returns,” with Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep. Directed by Rob Marshall, from a screenplay by David Magee, based on the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers. 130 minutes. Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action. Opens Dec. 19 at multiple theaters.