Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios

‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and of all the delightful songs from that movie, the one that really stirred my childhood self was the chimney sweep’s anthem, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” It took me a few years to understand that songs in a minor key sound darker than songs in a major key, but even as a kid I sensed that something about that tune was slightly eerie—its philosophical mood gave ballast to the movie’s floatiness.

There’s nothing like that minor-key tone in the new Mary Poppins Returns, no waft of night magic to offset the cheerful candy colors. But otherwise this is a crisply executed and refreshingly old-fashioned musical, drawn again from P.L. Travers’ Poppins books. The action in the new movie picks up a generation after the first story, as the supernatural Mary reprises her job as nanny to the Banks family in London. Her former sibling charges, Michael and Jane, are now grown-ups (played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer), and widower Michael needs help with his own children (Joel Dawson, Pixie Davies, and Nathaniel Saleh).

Mary Poppins is played by A Quiet Place star Emily Blunt, stepping into Julie Andrews’ lighter-than-air shoes. This is an unenviable task, but Blunt is a big reason Mary Poppins Returns sparks to life; straight-backed and sly-eyed, the actress has complete authority in the role, and she gets laughs by maintaining Mary’s no-nonsense attitude. The only problem is she’s not onscreen long enough; the camera frequently seems to forget she’s there. Occupying the position of Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep from the original is a streetwise lamplighter, Jack, played by Hamilton sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda. With his bland little-kid face and showbiz pizzazz, Miranda fits neatly into the Disney vibe; he’s like a Christmas pudding that also sings and dances. The high-class cast includes Julie Walters as the Banks family housekeeper, Colin Firth as a shifty banker, and a plucky trouper named Meryl Streep, a delight in one literally topsy-turvy sequence as Mary’s eccentric cousin.

The live-action characters enter animated worlds twice; one sequence is slickly digital, the other cartooned like mid-’60s Disney animation. The songs, by Hairspray duo Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman, are catchy and buoyant, and the production numbers stretch out into vast extravaganzas. The amazing thing is that Shaiman and Wittman have made no concessions to current musical taste; this is not the glossy Broadway-belting sound of, say, Frozen, but a throwback style that evokes the English music hall. Well, they make one concession: Miranda gets to do a spoken-word speed-jag in the middle of one song, although the music-hall setting only reinforces the idea that Gilbert and Sullivan explored rap over a century ago.

Director Rob Marshall actually lets you watch the dancing, which is an unexpected pleasure after his choppity-chop editing style in Chicago. The film’s physical production is so big that at times it can feel like a Disneyland ride, and Marshall is guilty of leaning on our shared nostalgia for a 54-year-old movie—anybody out there not have Mary Poppins DNA in your genes? But when Dick Van Dyke bursts through a door and starts kicking up his heels, good luck resisting this level of chim chim cher-ee.

Mary Poppins Returns

Opens Wednesday, December 19 | Rated PG

More in Film

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.

Taron Egerton (Robin) and Jamie Foxx (John) take another crack at the classic in Robin Hood. Photo by Larry Horricks
The Arrows Miss Their Mark in ‘Robin Hood’

The legend’s latest rendition can’t overcome its modern smirky tone and bland lead actor.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen form the odd couple that carries Green Book. 
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Stellar Acting Makes ‘Green Book’ A Smooth Ride

Despite its cornball touches, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen shine as a 1960s jazz pianist and his hired muscle.

Image by Drew Struzan/Disney
Holiday Movie Streaming Picks

Get in the festive spirit at home with these beloved seasonal films.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.