Charming, hugely belated sequel, starring Emily Blunt as the magical nanny
The prospect of a sequel long-scuppered due to resistance from the character's creator, PL Travers, who disliked many aspects of Disney's production, this hugely belated follow-up to 1964's Mary Poppins arrives in the shadow of a practically perfect original, whose place in cinematic history has been cemented by decades of affection. Nevertheless, Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Chicago) takes the helm of a mostly triumphant return to Cherry Tree Lane.
Set decades after the first film during 'the days of the Great Slump', it finds a grown-up Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) struggling financially in the wake of his wife's death. A failed artist turned bank teller, he has fallen behind with loan repayments and the family home will be repossessed within days, with his social justice crusader sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) powerless to help. When magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) sails down from the sky once again – this time reeled in with a flyaway kite – she arrives in the nick of time, filling a mother-shaped hole in the lives of Michael's three children (played by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson).
A suitably brusque and radiant Blunt appears self-conscious at first – Oscar winner Julie Andrews is an unenviable act to follow – yet grows into the role and is an able songstress. Whishaw brings pathos and Mortimer pluck and, with his odd casting as a cockney lamplighter recalling Dick Van Dyke's alternately ridiculous and charming chimney sweep, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a fitting accomplice for Mary. Van Dyke shows up again himself, as do Angela Lansbury, a villainous Colin Firth and – sporting a deliberately hard-to-place accent and an exuberant performance style – Meryl Streep no less, playing Mary's 2nd cousin, 'many times removed'.
It largely opts to evoke rather than emulate the original, although Marc Shaiman's score is threaded through with the familiar strains of its predecessor. The songs (lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman) are entirely new, marvellously conceived and executed. From the rambunctious and frivolous to the heartfelt and melancholy, highlights include vivacious music hall number 'A Cover is Not the Book' and tear-jerker 'The Place Where Lost Things Go'.
They pad out a mere sliver of a story in a film that lacks the idiosyncratic humour of, say, Paddington but soars like that kite in places. A scene set amongst the decorative detail of a Royal Doulton bowl features the seamless integration of hand-drawn animation to die for, while a delightful bathtub sequence, which evolves into a CGI-drenched underwater adventure, showcases what can be achieved with a bigger box of cinematic tricks. Nominated for four Golden Globes, Mary Poppins Returns looks glorious and delivers just the right measure of jollity and no more than a spoonful of sugary sentimentality. If it's hardly the equal of the adored original, its unabashed nostalgia is interspersed with impressive amounts of imagination.
General release from Fri 21 Dec.