Who dares to reboot the supercallifragilistic nanny, already practically perfect in every way? For more than half a century after Julie Andrews first drifted down from pearly London skies and into Disney legend, her legacy was left largely — one could even say inexplicably — untouched by remake-happy Hollywood. But as the lady herself likes to say, “Everything is possible, even the impossible.”
Thus, Mary Poppins Returns. As the story opens “In the days of the Great Slump,” Lin-Manuel Miranda is now the questionably Cockney chimney sweep, and the original movie’s little Michael Banks has become grown Ben Whishaw, a sad young widower in a sweater vest. An absent-minded bohemian who can hardly pay the bills, Michael has no time to wrangle his three small children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), Georgie (Joel Dawson), and John (Nathaneal Saleh)—even with the help of his kind-hearted sister (Emily Mortimer) and frazzled housemaid (Julie Walters).
Enter Mary (Emily Blunt): To the polite astonishment of the elder Bankses and the pure joy of the three youngest, P.L. Travers’ metaphysical au pair soon arrives from whatever cosmic waiting room she bides her immortal time in, unruffled and seemingly unchanged, to set things right.
Director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Chicago) clearly understands the legacy he’s taken on, filling nearly every corner of the screen with song and dance and tweedy whimsy — even a featured sequence done entirely in the flat ’60s-style animation of the original. But he doesn’t seem to quite know how to find a storytelling spine to match Mary’s famous rigor; the narrative feels spindly and slightly adrift, a parasol in the wind. And an easy solution for its central stakes — the family must find a misplaced deed by the midnight deadline, or lose their beloved home — is never in doubt.
What Marshall does have is Blunt’s purely expialidocious charm — all prim hauteur and cool straight-backed serenity, with a mad gleam of mischief lurking just beneath. Colin Firth makes a fine-enough villain as Mr. Wilkins, the mean-spirited bank manager whose priggish mustache is technically just a little too clipped for literal twirling, and it’s impossible not to smile when Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury briefly appear. (Though Hamilton polymath Miranda feels oddly miscast here, and Meryl Streep’s manic cameo seems to consist mostly of hooting laughter and head scarves). Spoonfuls of sugar always help the movie magic go down; if only this Mary had gotten a necessary twist of lemon, too. B