Okay, so Mary Poppins Returns is loud. That’s the first word that’s coming to mind. There are others, too: It’s energetic, boisterous, and overbearing. Not a single moment in it feels in the least spontaneous or unforced. I found the whole thing about as enchanting as someone throwing a handful of glitter in my face and saying, “Oooh, magical!” Let’s not mince words here: This movie is bad, so bad that I feel embarrassed.
Picking up some 20-odd years after the events of Mary Poppins, the film finds a grown-up Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) in need of guidance once again. She’s an unmarried labor organizer, he’s a recently widowed father of three, and they’re about to lose the house on 17 Cherry Tree Lane to the same bank that their now-deceased father once worked for. Thus, Mary (Emily Blunt) parachutes down from the sky on her umbrella, ostensibly to take care of Michael’s children (Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, and Joel Dawson), but really to take a holistic approach to the family’s problems.
Rob Marshall looks to be regressing as a director. More than any of his previous projects, this is material that could have benefited from a lighter touch, which Marshall seems unable to apply. He can’t bring on Mary or show her working any of her magic without a giant swell of music from the orchestra, and he conspicuously fails to evoke any sort of wonder when she takes the children into a world of animated characters rendered in a hand-drawn 1960s style. Yeah, about that: The script hews so closely to the original film’s that you wonder why the filmmakers bothered: The lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a pale copy of Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep, Mary and Jack sing and dance with a bunch of animated animals, and Jack leads a “Step in Time”-like dance number with his fellow working-class yobs. There’s catering to nostalgia, and then there’s just having no new ideas. To top it all off, songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are largely below their best — nothing here has anything like the breakout potential of “Supercalilfragilisticexpialidocious.”
The shame of it is, this movie has a marvelous cast, which Marshall has always been able to find for his musical films. Miranda, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning polymath behind the Broadway smash Hamilton, makes his screen debut here, showing off some serious dance moves in the previously mentioned number (called “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”) and spitting out some jaw-unhingingly fast patter in one section of the music hall-like march “A Cover Is Not the Book.” Angela Lansbury contributes a delightful cameo near the end leading a number called “Nowhere to Go But Up,” and Van Dyke appears — not as Bert — and shows that at age 93, he can still get up on top of a desk and do some dance moves of his own. Meanwhile, Blunt lends some balletic grace to her dance routines and infuses whimsy and mischief into her hospital-corners persona. She’s a better Mary Poppins than Julie Andrews, which is saying something. (On a related note: Can you imagine Julie Andrews playing that harried mom in A Quiet Place? I’m guessing not.)
What a shame she and everyone else are drowned out by Marshall’s heavy-handed insistence that we’re having so much fun. This movie has all the fake good cheer of a beer commercial. It’s so noisy and overdirected that even Meryl Streep (as Mary’s Slavic-accented cousin) is swallowed up in the production design. If only Marshall had trusted in the abilities of his cast members and kept everything on a human scale, Mary Poppins Returns might have achieved the bigger-than-life quality that he was going for. Instead, we’re left with this white elephant.
Mary Poppins Returns
Starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by David Magee, based on P.L. Travers’ stories. Rated PG.