I’d read the negative reviews that said Mary Poppins Returns was a dreary slog, far inferior to the original. I suggested Aquaman as an alternate for the family Christmas day movie. (We’ve already seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse twice.)
But the younger son (19), who loves musical theater, was insistent on Mary Poppins Returns and, besides, reviews of Aquaman are also mixed. So off we went.
One-word review: uplifting.
The longer review: it’s complicated.
The bottom line is that we walked out of the theater smiling and happy, and that is always a good sign. (Unless we watched, you know, Avengers: Infinity War.)
Basically, Mary Poppins Returns is being sold as a sequel, where our intrepid and practically perfect in every way nanny has to help the Banks children again. But where my reaction becomes complicated—and where many of the negative reviews are coming from—is that this is basically the same movie as the original.
It’s the same plot, in that the Banks father (now Michael, all grown up) has given up what he loves for a soul-crushing job that has made him into what his father once was. Oh, there are good reasons, such as the need to support his family and afford necessities like food and shelter, but, as you guessed, Mary Poppins is there to show Michael how to see past his grief and live again, just as she was there to teach the elder Mr. Banks how to experience joy.
More than that, each musical sequence is a different version of what was done in the original.
“Step in Time” is replaced by “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is replaced by “Nowhere to Go But Up.” There are two songs, one melancholy, one jazzy, that inject a little of the new and different, but the songs also hit the same story beats as the originals. In other words, those types of songs are there in the sequel for the same reason as they were in the original.
And with that same plot, it becomes impossible not to compare the two movies.
Which means that it becomes impossible for Mary Poppins Returns to be better than the original.
I’m not sure I understood the amazing achievement of the Sherman Brothers, who did the original music, until I watched the sequel, with others trying to recapture their magic. It’s not that the songs in the sequel are bad—they’re quite good—but they’re not as good as the original ones. (Sidenote: I highly recommend The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, a documentary about the career of Richard and Richard Sherman.)
Similarly, Emily Blunt is wonderful as the title character and Lin-Manuel Miranda is wonderful as Jack, the new version of Bert. They certainly equal the originals. I’m not sure they do it better, however. Miranda may have an edge over Dick Van Dyke for not having a horrible fake Cockney accent, but Van Dyke’s performance in the original is so full of joy that it’s hard to replicate in that way, though Miranda also has a grand time.
Blunt is amazing as the title character, but is she better than Julie Andrews? No, though Blunt deserves full credit for inhabiting the role so well.
In short, Mary Poppins Returns is a big love letter to the old-fashioned type of musical that the original Mary Poppins was.
It is unabashedly full of hope, fun, and it’s ridiculous in a good way in many spots. Meryl Streep and the kids are having a grand time in their upside-down musical sequence, for instance, and my teenagers loved that part too.
But Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t modernize the story and it doesn’t modernize the style of the songs, something that I half-expected with Miranda involved, given his revolutionary play, Hamilton.
There is a glimmer of something new in “A Cover Is Not the Book” done in the cartoon sequence by Mary and Jack, but that’s all it is, a glimmer. This is the kind of musical Hollywood used to make in the glory days of musicals.
That’s not a bad thing. I love many of those old musicals, including Mary Poppins and, yes, The Sound of Music.
But the sequel remains so similar to the original that it’s a lesser reflection, very good but not great.
But, even with Mary Poppins Returns as a lesser reflection, it’s still fun to watch, it’s still a visual feast, and kids will still enjoy it.