"MARY POPPINS RETURNS" — 3 stars — Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke; PG (mild thematic elements and brief action); in general release; running time: 130 minutes
"Mary Poppins Returns" doesn't surpass the original — it's not "The Godfather Part II" or "The Empire Strikes Back" — but it does revive the magic of the beloved 1964 film and will undoubtedly leave you smiling.
Director Rob Marshall's film takes place in the days of "the Great Slump," about 20-30 years after the original. The Banks children are all grown up, and sadly, not all is well. Michael ("Paddington's" Ben Whishaw) is mourning the recent loss of his wife, but thankfully, his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is helping him raise his three children.
Michael has also fallen behind on his house payments, and as the film opens, a pair of representatives from the bank arrive on Cherry Tree Lane with the threat of foreclosure.
The irony of all this is that, like his father, Michael works for the very bank that is threatening to steal his home. He realizes he should still have some stock options that could pay the house off, but if he can't locate the certificate, the bank's current chairman, Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), will be more than happy — despite his insistence otherwise — to snatch up another property.
So as the straits get increasingly dire, a familiar woman descends from the clouds: Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), the magical nanny who helped out his family during his childhood. While Michael and Jane try to work out the details of their predicament, Mary lifts the family's spirits and helps them regain a little perspective before it's too late.
The key to "Mary Poppins Returns" is expectations. If you go in expecting the film to equal or even replace — but could it ever really replace? — the iconic original, you will be disappointed. If you go in expecting a good time returning to one of Disney's most celebrated properties, you'll enjoy the results.
Like the first film, Mary's plan of attack involves upbeat musical numbers, some imaginative adventures and, of course, a generous dose of magic. She also gets an assist from a local street lamp-lighting "leerie" named Jack ("Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), who used to be an associate of Dick Van Dyke's character years earlier.
It's hard to think of any contemporary actress more perfectly suited to the Mary Poppins role than Blunt, and she floats into the part both literally and figuratively. Miranda isn't quite as much a match in the Dick Van Dyke position, but as expected, the Broadway star's musical numbers are a spoonful of sugar.
On that note, "Mary Poppins Returns" has many nods to the original film's music but mostly builds out its own lineup. While this is a much more bold and noble tactic than merely conjuring up a "Mary Poppins Greatest Hits" routine, it may disappoint the fans hoping to see their favorite songs reprised.
Actually, the best thing about "Mary Poppins Returns" is how seamlessly it fits into the franchise's established universe. The film takes place in the 1930s, decades after the first, but the look, feel and even execution come off as if it were plucked from the same Disney era. And in terms of theme and content, "Mary Poppins Returns" doesn't try to modernize its message or retrofit anything for 21st-century audiences. Instead, the songs, themes and story all strive for a more universal ethic, which frankly is a very welcome move.
"Mary Poppins Returns" may not go down as one of the all-time great sequels, but Blunt's take on the kind but firm Mary Poppins fulfilled the job — practically perfect in every way.
"Mary Poppins Returns" is rated a soft PG for some adult themes and should be fully appropriate for the whole family.