Mary Poppins Returns is about as close as you can get to a remake of Mary Poppins without just calling it a remake. Technically the story takes place 25 years after the original, but Rob Marshall’s movie is more about replacement rather than moving anything forward. There’s an extended animation sequence, but it uses newer animation techniques. Instead of visiting Mary Poppins’ uncle, they visit her cousin. Instead of a dance sequence with chimneysweeps, it’s a dance sequence with lamplighters. If you haven’t seen the original Mary Poppins, then Mary Poppins Returns will probably seem vibrant and new. But when placed next to the classic, it looks more like a pale imitation.
Picking up 25 years after the first movie, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) now has three children of his own—Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). However, following the illness of his deceased wife, Michael was forced to take out a loan on the house, and he can’t afford to repay it. While he desperately searches for old stock certificates that might prove valuable enough to save their home, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) flies back into the lives of the Banks family and takes the kids on some adventures with the help of her friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter. Thanks to Mary, the Banks family grows a little closer and they learn some nice lessons along the way.
If you look back at the original Mary Poppins, it’s an odd sort of movie that thrives thanks to the strength of the music and the performances from Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. However, it’s also a movie with some sly social commentary in the way it juxtaposes certain songs and looks at particular characters. While we all remember Mary and Bert dancing with animated characters, we would also do well to remember that the song “Feed the Birds” is then followed by “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” where the greedy bankers would steal tuppence from a young boy, and remark that if you “feed the birds” you just get “fat birds”, a scathing statement on how the wealthy view social welfare.
The only thing Mary Poppins Returns thought to excise was anything resembling such bold social statements. Sure, it copies things like this time around Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) is now fighting for workers’ rights like her mother fought for women’s right to vote, but it’s a cosmetic nod rather than anything as bold as Winifred Banks pointing out that men are stupid and George Banks walking in and proving her point. Instead, Mary Poppins Returns opts to be as gentle as possible, going for big musical numbers and bright colors.
And those aren’t bad things! There’s nothing wrong with utilizing new developments in technology to push the envelope forward on an animated sequence involving 2D characters nor is there anything wrong with the vibrant sets or Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costumes. As a half-remembered memory of the first Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Returns is inoffensive and charming enough. Blunt’s Poppins may be a bit sharper than Andrews’, but she acquits herself well at the character. Miranda also gets a showstopping turn when he unleashes a solo in the musical’s best song, “The Cover Is Not the Book”. The irony of Mary Poppins Returns is that desperately relies on the first movie for almost everything, but succeeds best if you can only vaguely remember the original.
Probably the worst thing you can do before watching Mary Poppins Returns is to see the 1964’s Mary Poppins not just because it’s hard to compare to a film that has such a beloved reputation, but because you can see all the ways Marshall comes up short. His movie just doesn’t have the same level of imagination, and it certainly doesn’t have the songwriting chops (there’s not a song in Mary Poppins Returns that has the staying power of “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). That’s not to say that the original Mary Poppins is some untouchable gem, but rather that it appears Mary Poppins Returns didn’t even try to outdo the original in any respect. It’s content to stay in the shadow of its predecessor, and while it’s awfully cheery in that shadow, it feels destined to fade from memory almost as soon as the closing credits roll.