Julie Andrews declined to participate in “Mary Poppins Returns,” a brand new sequel to the 1964 original film she won an Academy Award for, not because she disapproved of the project but rather to avoid being a distraction.
Disney’s latest film isn’t a “Mary Poppins” redux, nor is it meant to be.
While clearly influenced by the original in both tone and plot, Rob Marshall’s film is a delightful, charming adventure aimed to be the “Mary Poppins” for a new generation and not simply a nostalgia-infused cash grab remake.
A Hollywood musical with the talents of Golden Globe nominee Emily Blunt, Broadway mega-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, Angela Lansbury and acting royalty Meryl Streep has an incredibly high floor and “Returns,” though not without its imperfections, is a lighthearted crowd-pleaser for all generations.
Set about 25 years after the events of the original, “Returns” finds a widowed Michael Banks and his three young children on the brink of losing their family home when Mary Poppins descends from the sky to save the day in her own proper, yet impossible way.
An Oscar nomination could be in sight for Blunt, practically perfect in a role she was born to play as the titular Mary Poppins. The sly, conniving way she approaches the character works due to her innate charm where terseness comes across as a wink to the audience instead of an insult.
Blunt’s performance doesn’t really evoke Andrews’, but that’s the goal here. Her reinvention of the character more closely mirrors that of P.L. Travers’ novels and sets a foundation for the entire film to be more theatrical in nature.
She’s also a perfect pairing with Miranda, a consummate performer who brings a natural enthusiasm to lamplighter Jack that spills off the screen to engage the audience.
The film’s theatricality brings about the best in Miranda and his affable nature helps offset a slightly wonky British accent for a turn that will leave viewers smiling.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is winning in its ridiculousness, a celebration of the wonderful weirdness of imagination.
Only in a quality Disney film can Streep get away with an outlandish Eastern European accent while singing about flippidy-flops and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in a way that objectively shouldn’t work but somehow does.
Marshall’s background as a theater director and choreographer serves “Returns” quite well as the film’s large musical set pieces like the lamplighters’ dance in “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” or the outstanding Cockney romp “A Cover Is Not The Book” full of animated penguins and Miranda’s signature freestyle rapping.
The longer Miranda or especially Blunt are off screen, however, “Returns” wanes considerably in both pacing and entertainment. A secondary plot device about a bank loan proves somewhat tedious given the two-plus hour running time.
While there isn’t anything as dynamic as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Marc Shaiman’s music is a cheerful accompaniment for the film’s best scenes, with “A Cover Is Not The Book” and “Turning Turtle” as standout numbers musically.
The trademark blurring of animation and live-action iconic to the original movie returns and produces some spectacular visual sequences as audiences follow a carriage ride around a ceramic bowl in three dimensions.
“Returns” may sneak into a Best Picture conversation at next spring’s Academy Awards, but it is more likely that nods are in order for Blunt’s charming performance, memorable tunes like “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” and the wonderful production design and costuming.
As lighthearted films to see with family this holiday season go, viewers won’t be able to find better than the thoroughly enjoyable “Mary Poppins Returns.”