Review: 'Mary Poppins Returns' trips on its light fantastic

This sequel to the 1964 original feels lost in time

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in "Mary Poppins Returns."

In “Mary Poppins Returns,” there’s plenty of singing and dancing and flying, but no magic.

Perhaps it depends on your level of reverence for the original “Mary Poppins.” The new “Poppins” is faithful to the spirit of the 1964 film and doesn’t seek to overhaul the character for modern audiences (which could have been cringe-inducing in a whole different way). 

But that is also part of its problem. While handsome looking and wholesome and pure in that Disney way, “Mary Poppins Returns” is merrily out of step with today’s world, like a vaudeville act on a stand-up comedy bill. It’s for parents and grandparents who miss “the way things used to be,” and complaints that it doesn’t have enough zip will be met with arguments that everything in today’s world moves too fast anyway.

But rather than making a “Poppins” that works for today, director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) has fashioned a film that is a throwback for throwback’s sake without evaluating how to tell the story for today. There’s a stiffness to the film, a plastic sense of whimsy, that keeps it from connecting, and a nagging feeling that all of this should be a lot more fun than it really is.

There’s plenty to admire in the production design and the costumes, and in its re-creation of 1930s London. (“Poppins Returns” is a 2018 film set in the 1930s that copies the nostalgic feel of a 1960s family film, an impressive balancing act.) 

The music, however, which should be the lifeblood coursing throughout the film, falls strangely flat. There’s always that moment up front in musicals where you either buy in or you don’t, and the first number in “Poppins Returns” — which finds “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda as a lamplighter singing of the joys “Underneath the Lovely London Sky” — doesn’t quite connect. It makes for a bumpy ride ahead.

We open in London where the Banks family, grown-up brother Michael (Ben Whishaw) and sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael’s three young children, face financial woes. They have just a few days to pay off banker William “Weatherall” Wilkins (a sniveling Colin Firth) or the bank takes possession of their home on Cherry Tree Lane. 

Who shows up when the Banks are in a jam? Why Mary Poppins, of course, played  by Emily Blunt, who certainly looks the part of Poppins, but never breaks out and takes ahold of the film the way you wish she would. Poppins shows the Banks children all sorts of imaginative diversions that are the narrative equivalent of wheel-spinning. They supposedly matter as they’re happening on screen, such as the subplot where the children travel inside a porcelain bowl and enter a 2-D animated world, but afterward they haven’t pushed the plot forward in any way, only padded the running time.

Speaking of padding the running time, Meryl Streep shows up for one scene as Topsy, Poppins’ cousin; the less said about this frantic character, who is more like a cousin of Johnny Depp’s cracked Mad Hatter character in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the better. 

There is also a cameo late in the movie that may well thrill fans of the original “Poppins” — fitting, since that is the only audience targeted here.

There was another family film this year, set in London and based on a beloved children’s tale, about an outsider who visits a family, helps them toward a common goal and makes everyone around them better. It was “Paddington 2,” and it was a more creative and fulfilling and rewarding experience than “Mary Poppins Returns.” (And it featured a better performance from Whishaw, who voiced Paddington.)

“Paddington 2” showed the way a modern film can play to today’s audiences and still feel timeless; “Mary Poppins Returns” feels like it was popped out of a time capsule, where it should have stayed.


'Mary Poppins Returns'


Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action

Running time: 131 minutes