‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is a spoonful of sweetness in a cynical world

If only we all had the balls of Rob Marshall, the man who cast Daniel Day-Lewis in a cabaret musical (2009’s instantly-forgotten Nine), forced Meryl Streep to act opposite James Corden (Into The Woods) and has now directed a sequel to one of the finest films ever produced. I mean, it’s hard not to admire his recklessness. Mary Poppins Returns has every right to be a total, grotesque, insulting disaster. But somehow it… sort of works? It’s messy and indulgent and full of poor judgement, but never once does it impede on the legacy of Robert Stevenson’s 1965 classic, and in successfully allowing that film’s memory to remain intact, Marshall has undeniably achieved something.

As with Poppins ’65, our co-lead-cum-narrator for this yarn is a friendly London tradesman, in this case Lin Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter Jack. Miranda is in this film far too much, god bless him, to the extent that his insufferable Hamilton rap-singing is incorporated into one of the mediocre musical numbers. But he’s nonetheless a likeable presence, more anyway that Emily Blunt’s eponymous nanny, an exhaustingly over-rehearsed performance that — in an attempt to veer as far as possible from Julie Andrews — ends up being really quite an unpleasant character. Mary Poppins isn’t exactly supposed to be a sweetheart, but neither should she be the least charming presence in a scene by a wide margin.

Aside from Poppins and Jack, the film offers a really delightful canvas of personalities: Admiral Boom and Mr. Binnacle are back on their rooftop, firing their canon on the hour. Meryl Streep is at her best since Ricki and the Flash in her one scene as the film’s Uncle Albert counterpart, Topsy. Colin Firth is the closest we get to a villain (it’s all, marvellously, rated G, so genuine conflict is kept to a minor banking disagreement) and is having a great time. And in the final few minutes we’re treated to cameos by two of the greatest movie stars alive: Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, both of whom’s arrival sent me weeping.

The original songs range from decent to just-fine, almost nothing sticks in the memory other than the basic themes of Marc Shaiman’s score. The song and dance numbers are quite strong, particularly the climactic “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” and “Nowhere To Go But Up” (the two most crowded with background dancers). The extended animated sequence is hard to fault: a sweet throwback to Disney 2D animation that will hopefully remind audiences that they miss such visuals. The whole film runs a little too long but an unexpectedly action-packed final act (keep an eye on Big Ben) helps keep the pace up. Ultimately (and Christopher Robin benefited from something similar earlier in the year) it’s just pretty heartwarming that a studio were willing to spend well over $100m on a G-rated, totally uncynical, family musical fantasy that relies on 60s nostalgia for mass appeal, in 2018.

When this film was first announced a few years ago I tweeted somewhat relentlessly that it was a “hate crime” that I would vehemently boycott. I must now admit that I rather like it and will possibly end up buying the Blu-Ray. Oh well. What are you gonna do?