If anything, “Mary Poppins Returns” proves that the House of Mouse is a dependable charm machine when it comes to live action musicals. The new original songs don’t fare as well. Most are dreadful, which is shame because the singing is quite good from all the actors.
Far be it from Disney to muck with a tried-and-true formula. Set in 1930s London, this film introduces three new Banks children and their dad Michael (Ben Whishaw) and aunt Jane (Emily Mortimer), the original characters who are now grown and dealing with their own real world problems on Cherry Tree Lane. Appearing on cue when she’s needed, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) reappears to help the Banks family once again.
Filling the shoes of Dick Van Dyke as Bert in the 1964 screen version, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an optimistic lamplighter named Jack. Jack likes to sing and dance and smile because gosh darn it, it’s a beautiful day! Miranda is a charming and immense talent, but is squandered with the mediocre tunes he’s given to perform. There’s a particularly cringe-inducing semi-rap number with animated penguins that reeks of capitalizing on his “Hamilton” fame.
Some decent stunt casting (that includes Meryl Streep as eccentric cousin Topsy and Colin Firth as a ne’er-do-well banker) temporarily livens things up. Streep’s upside-down musical number is one of the most enjoyable in the entire film.
The story and tone is dated and old-fashioned, which may be welcomed by some but shunned by most. The original framework of the beloved book series by P. L. Travers is there, but with bits and pieces of attempted modern sensibilities added in. Not helping matters is that Mary isn’t much of a likable character, an uptight and slightly pompous nanny who just so happens to have a bag full of tricks. The fantasy sequences, including an extended bit that is set underwater and one that’s inside an animated world populated by animals, are visually acceptable but mostly seem antiquated.
Emily Blunt is the brightest star, her bewitching take on the magical nanny is spot-on. Blunt feels like she was born to play the role. The remainder of the cast ranges from good (Mortimer and Streep) to annoying (Miranda) to something akin to fingernails scratching against a chalkboard. The kids are adorable with a wide-eyed creepiness that seems as if they were manufactured to order at the Disney child actor factory.
The film has an agonizing two hour plus runtime that causes it to become a joyless endurance test as it goes on and on for what feels like eight days straight. It’s so long I kept wondering when it would finally end. You will absolutely feel every single second that ticks away in the theater.
The prolonged musical numbers, coupled with uninspiring songs, ultimately prove to be the film’s downfall.