MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2 STARS)
PLOT The practically perfect nanny finds that another generation of Banks children needs her help.
CAST Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Wishaw
RATED PG (mild peril)
BOTTOM LINE A disappointing “Poppins” that turns an iconic story into garden-variety kiddie fare.
Heels together, brolly aloft, a familiar figure floats down to London in “Mary Poppins Returns,” Disney’s sequel to its 1964 classic, “Mary Poppins.” We’re in the Depression era, and Michael Banks is a grown man who hardly recognizes his old nanny. Not because she’s played by Emily Blunt instead of Julie Andrews, but because Michael has become an adult.
“Grown-ups forget,” squawks Mary’s parrot-handle umbrella. “They always do.”
Have we, though? Eternally available on home video, “Mary Poppins” remains an endlessly rewatchable piece of work, graced by a practically perfect Andrews and produced by a studio at a creative peak. Even in the jaded 21st century, the movie captivates. Most of us know how P.L. Travers, Poppins’ creator, worried that Disney would miss the point of her novel and turn it into noisy, candy-colored folderol. More than 50 years later, Travers' fears are realized.
The movie’s heart seems in the right place. Michael, played by a moving Ben Whishaw, has become his father: A workaholic employed at the very same bank. He’s also a widower whose finances are in arrears. Eviction looms; he has no time for his three children. (His sister, Jane, played by Emily Mortimer, gets little screen time.) Enter Mary Poppins to bring whimsy and joy to the Banks tykes (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson) and, of course, to Michael.
That all worked in the original film. Why does so little of it work here? For starters, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee have overstuffed this movie with random ideas. A bathtub becomes an ocean, a repair shop is upturned by its eccentric owner (Topsy, played by Meryl Streep), an animated sequence involves the animals from a piece of heirloom china. The songs, by Broadway veteran Marc Shaiman (who also composed the score) and Scott Wittman, are clever but rarely help us understand what’s happening on screen.
Blunt, an otherwise sparkling actress, fizzles as Mary. It’s a tricky character — conceited yet kind, haughty yet loving — and Blunt simply doesn’t balance her as beautifully as Andrews did. Her bearing is too posh, her asides too cutting. What’s more, Blunt’s Poppins is plopped into a saucy cabaret act (“A Cover Is Not the Book”) complete with a Sally Bowles bob and a bowler hat over her groin. It’s a good thing Travers isn’t here to see that.
Finally, there’s Lin-Manuel Miranda as the lamplighter Jack, a close cousin to Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep Bert from the original film. Jack feels cloying rather than endearing, but the bigger complaint is that Miranda’s British accent — “‘Ow are you this foin evenin’?” — is as legendarily awful as Van Dyke’s. (The 91-year-old Van Dyke pops up for a charming soft-shoe.)
“Mary Poppins Returns” isn’t a bad movie but, despite its top-notch cast and awards-burnished crew, it’s not terribly good, either. Poppins, her creator and all of us deserve better.