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.