In Hollywood, where sequels get cranked out at an alarmingly quick pace, it must be some sort of record that it took 54 years for a second “Mary Poppins.”
The original movie musical, with Julie Andrews as the magical British nanny and Dick Van Dyke as her buddy Bert, was a smash in 1964 and gave the world songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cheree” and the tongue-twisting “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
How do you make a follow-up that honors the original but appeals to audiences in 2018? Director Rob Marshall took up the challenge and assembled an all-star cast led by Emily Blunt as Mary, and “Hamilton” genius Lin-Manuel Miranda as her singing and dancing partner, a lamplighter named Jack.
“Mary Poppins Returns,” which hits theaters nationwide Wednesday, is a bright, cheery, colorful concoction. Though not quite spectacular, it ranks as pleasant family-friendly fare punctuated by nine new songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The script is by David Magee, based on P.L. Travers’ original Poppins stories.
The infinitely talented and likable Blunt was a smart choice for Mary. Her singing and dancing don’t necessarily reach wow-factor levels, but it doesn’t matter because Miranda is often there to accentuate a note or step. They are joined by Meryl Streep, as Mary’s distant, Gypsy-like cousin Topsy, Colin Firth as scheming banker William Weatherall Wilkins, and Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as the grown-up versions of Michael and Jane Banks, the children assisted by Mary in the first film. There are also bonus appearances by Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury.
The original film was set in 1910 London. This time around, the action is still based at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, but it’s the 1930s during the Great Depression (or what the Brits called the “Great Slump”). Mary appears magically from the sky in order to help the Banks family, primarily Michael, now a widower with three children: John, Anabel and Georgie (played by Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies and Joel Dawson, all wonderful).
The bank has just slapped a foreclosure notice on Michael’s house and he has only a few days to try and pay up. The house is cared for by the scatter-brained Ellen (Julie Walters) and is occasionally rattled by cannon blasts from the noisy next-door neighbor, Admiral Boom (David Warner). Thanks to Mary, the Banks children embark on several dreamlike adventures while trying to help their father.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is an old-fashioned musical, peppered with moments of old-school, hand-drawn animation. If nothing else, it should score Oscar nominations for costumes and production design. The new songs include Miranda’s upbeat “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and Blunt’s sorrowful “A Place Where Lost Things Go.” Miranda even provides some quasi-rapping during “A Cover is Not the Book,” as he and Blunt work their way through an old Music Hall surrounded by adoring animated animals.
Miranda’s charms transfer well to the big screen and his Jack is a lovable everyman. We tend to get Mary at arm’s length, while Jack is more embraceable. He may also have eyes for Jane Banks, who is politically active on behalf of London’s working folk. Credit Mortimer with making the minor character of Jane a winning and memorable one.
I left the theater with this question: Who is the target audience?
Are today’s 8- to 12-year-olds too jaded by the deluge of superheroes and special effects to be enraptured by a nanny from the 1930s? Will this mostly please families with really young kids, or musical buffs, or fans of the first film looking for a nostalgic getaway?
One purist not around to dump on the new film is P.L. Travers, who passed away in 1996. The first Poppins book was published in 1934 and it took Walt Disney decades to win the movie rights from the author, who famously hated the songs, sets and characterizations of the original “Mary Poppins.” (There is a movie about that too: “Saving Mr. Banks” from 2013, with Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney.)
Marshall, who knows his way around a musical — “Chicago,” “Nine,” “Into the Woods” — went out of his way to pay tribute to the first film and Travers’ characters. And he has given families looking for some Christmas time distraction a G-rated excuse to go to the multiplex.
Except it’s not rated G. Inexplicably, Mary 2.0 drew a PG from the MPAA for “mild thematic elements,” whatever those are, and “brief action.”
Indeed, children must be cautioned and protected by their parents whenever any large-screen entertainment dares to include “brief action.”
Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.