Mary Poppins Returns begins with a very traditional opening number, before revealing very traditional opening credits with an overture in the vein of the original. It is a clear jump into the past, and an age when filmmaking was ornate in its charms and looked to largess in order to please. Rob Marshall understandably wants to channel his nostalgic impulses, because nothing personifies nostalgia more than Mary Poppins. Does he channel them too much, though? Arguably, yes, he does. So much of this endeavor feels like a none-too-subtle redecoration of the original, following almost the exact same beats (children being taught to embrace their imaginations, distracted parental figures finally seeing the value of their family, episodic adventures capped off with big musical numbers—even some gravity-defying stunts). Certain songs here feel like deliberate offshoots of ones from 1964: “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Step in Time,” while “Nowhere to Go but Up” is a blatant remake of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Even the visit to an eccentric family member is repeated, with Meryl Streep’s accented Topsy becoming a zanier version of Ed Wynn’s Uncle Albert. In fact, there’s very little here that doesn’t feel creatively indebted to the original, and because none of it surpasses the original, it makes for an unfulfilling ride.
Blunt’s thornier take on Poppins, compared to what Julie Andrews brought, is one of the few interesting diversions. I credit Blunt for not copying her predecessor, because she finds her own nuances, and works hard to carry them through. Andrews’ shoes were impossible to fill; Blunt doesn’t try, and instead presents us with a satisfying portrayal of her own. I also must credit the visual effects, especially the 2D animation sequence. This was one of the few obvious retreads from 1964 that I did not mind, because we rarely see the 2D style nowadays, and here it’s rendered well. While I prefer the work in the original overall, it brought my heart much joy to see Blunt and Miranda dancing with those penguins (in fact, “A Cover Is Not the Book” is probably the best musical number for the sheer flair it brings to the proceedings).
Mary Poppins Returns has a way of pleading to its audiences for approval, because it asks you to return to the same story in the hope you’ll be willing. If you are, then naturally this film will be your tonic. If you aren’t, then the experience will be much different. I side more with the latter group. I can’t deny that this project is an accomplished one, and that everyone involved put their heart and soul to make it work. But because this version is so indebted to the nostalgia associated with the original, to the point where it literally borrows its structure, I can’t fathom why I’d want to return to it when the 1964 film is right there. The songs are classics, Julie Andrews stuns, Dick Van Dyke is at his silly best—why settle for the imitation when you can have the real deal? And what does it say about a film when it can’t even answer a question like that?