When they decided to make a long-overdue follow-up to Mary Poppins, the filmmakers could’ve gone with a remake. But presumably they recognised that the Disney classic is, as the title character would say herself, practically perfect in every way, and any attempt to “modernise”, or “improve” the original would’ve been roundly derided by long-time fans, their children and grandchildren.
Instead, they sensibly wrote Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel which pays so much homage to the 1964 film, yet with so many original ideas, that even the most hardcore Poppins addict can’t help but be enchanted.
Their only possible lifeline is a certificate for shares in the bank, which his father had bought, but where it could possibly be is another matter entirely.
Into this madness drops (literally) Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who was the children’s nanny all those years ago, and who has come to sort things out. Like their father and aunt before them, Annabel, John and Georgie aren’t quite sure what to make of this curious character, but she soon has them disappearing down plugholes and into the artwork of Royal Doulton bowls.
These magical adventures are the most obvious tribute to the original film. Stepping into the bowl’s artwork, for example, is a play on the pavement drawings of the first film (Mary’s outfit is of a similarly Edwardian design, and the animated penguins make an appearance). Where the older film had chimney sweeps stepping in time, this film has lamplighters, or “leeries” led by Jack (a marvellous Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Cockney accent is actually believable) tripping the light fantastic. And in place of the visit to Uncle Albert, who floats when he laughs, Mary takes the children to visit her cousin Topsy whose home... well, let’s just say she looks at things a different way.
But there’s far more to Mary Poppins Returns than an awestruck paean filled with A-list (nay, A+ list) actors. While strains of the original soundtrack can be heard in places, the songs are all original, and fresh, and hummable. None may quite match the magic of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but there is real heart in the ballads A Conversation and The Place Where Lost Things Go; A Cover is Not The Book gives Miranda the opportunity to show off the rapping skills he became famous for in Hamilton (although Blunt’s one false step here is the strange accent choice); and you’d have to be pretty cunical not to be wowed by Trip a Little Light Fantastic and its somersaulting leeries.
The set and costumes are as gorgeous as you'd expect from a massive Disney production, and the child actors given enough chance to shine, despite so much of the plot focusing on the adults.
It’s taken 54 years for this to get here; and while Blunt could never outshine Julie Andrew’s sublime performance in the first Disney film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, she is the best possible contemporary choice to continue the Poppins story. The only real disappointment? That Dame Julie didn’t join her co-star Dick Van Dyke in a standing-ovation-worthy cameo.