Floating in on the wind with her umbrella in hand, Mary Poppins is back — in a most delightful way. More than half a century since the magical nanny made the leap from page to screen, this lively, loving sequel explores a notion that's already fuelled seven books. Directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) and scripted by David Magee (Life of Pi), Mary Poppins Returns asks: what if the seemingly prim-and-proper governess worked her wonders on the Banks children once more?
The answer both does and doesn't play out as expected. Imaginative songs, animated flights of fantasy and a friendly labourer all feature, as does the Banks house on Cherry Tree Lane. Kids learning life lessons and to embrace their creativity are part and parcel of the film as well, and so is the warmest of moods. But, letting time pass in the story as it has in real life, Mary Poppins Returns introduces adult versions of the tykes that Poppins once cared for. They need her help yet again, and so does the next generation snapping at their heels.
Struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression, widower Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is about to lose the family home. He's behind in the mortgage and, despite working for the bank as his late father did before him, the financial institution's president (Colin Firth) won't offer an extension. Michael's only option is to find proof that he own shares, with his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his children Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) all doing their part in the search. Enter Poppins (Emily Blunt), as radiant and no-nonsense as ever – except when she's the source of the nonsense. If that idea seems like a conundrum, the nanny explains the predicament herself in one of the movie's catchy musical numbers.
Reviving not only a long-beloved character, but one engrained in the youth of multiple generations, is far from an easy task. Thank the heavens that Poppins descends from for Blunt. Fresh from putting in a powerhouse performance in the virtually dialogue-free horror flick A Quiet Place, she charms and captivates stepping into Julie Andrews' shoes. Always entrancing, it's the kind of singing and dancing showcase that audiences mightn't have realised that the English actor could deliver. Whether she's schooling and being silly with the Banks poppets, or leading them into adventures with kindly lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) by her side, Blunt fits the part perfectly. More than that — she practically perfects the film's infectious air of fun in every way.
While a spoonful of sugar isn't needed to make the movie go down a treat, it comes in the form of Marshall's love and care. The filmmaker's output can be hit and miss, with Chicago falling into the first category and Into the Woods the second, but Mary Poppins Returns is a winning effort. There's a juggling act at the picture's core, as the movie endeavours to pay homage to its popular predecessor without becoming a mere rehash. In a playful and well-judged manner, Marshall finds the necessary balance. His film deploys elements of the original — reflecting, reshaping, inverting, referencing — and yet it flies high as a kite on much more than nostalgia.
Among the few elements that don't soar, nothing threatens to send the picture tumbling. The slight story feels like it could be whisked away by a breeze, but it's aided by the frequent diversions into song and dance. Rarely at her best in music-heavy scenarios (as the Mamma Mia! movies have shown), Meryl Streep is forgettable as the magical nanny's cousin, however her part is brief. And even when the film falters momentarily, Mary Poppins Returns has quite the distraction up its sleeves. From the eye-catching costuming to the colourful sets to the gorgeous animation, the movie serves up a visual wonderland.
First Paddington, then Winnie the Pooh and now Mary Poppins, British treasures just keep coming back to the screen. But when they're this enjoyable, they're more than welcome. We're sure Poppins herself would approve of that sentiment. Among her many life lessons: realising when to relish what's in front of you.