Even before it hit theaters on Wednesday, Mary Poppins Returns was breaking records. Not for the box office, but for the longest time between an original live action film and its sequel. The lovely Tom Hanks movie Saving Mr. Banks notwithstanding, Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers was known to be as prickly as her literary creation and famously hated the songs and animation in the 1964 film. That left the Walt Disney Co. unable even to discuss a second film until after her death in 1996.
The intervening years have only made our hearts fonder of the practically perfect nanny and the catchy tunes Travers inexplicably disliked. Is there a child in the English-speaking world who can’t sing “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” or “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” on command? So there’s no doubt director Rob Marshall and his team had their work cut out for them in crafting a new Poppins movie that wouldn’t feel like sacrilege to families everywhere. For the most part, they’ve succeeded.
The heavy lifting falls to Emily Blunt. It’s a brave actress who’s willing to reprise not just a Julie Andrews role, but arguably her most iconic. While not quite reaching her predecessor’s level (and let’s be honest, who could?), Blunt manages a version of Poppins close enough to the 1964 portrayal not to feel jarring while at the same time putting her own spin on the character.
Blunt’s singing voice is pleasant enough, and we don’t really expect it to display the once-in-a-generation talent Andrews possessed. However, while we understand that Mary Poppins is still supposed to be commanding, Blunt fails to own the screen with the same infallible presence. In fact, one scene where a now-grown Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) snaps at Mary drew gasps from my screening audience: We instinctively understood that no matter how many years have passed, Michael should remember his old nanny is not a lady to be trifled with.
Blunt’s Mary, though, is a little smiley to be truly imposing. You get the sense she would long to join a tea party on the ceiling rather than cluck with disapproval and levitate because she must. She is just a little less proper, particularly when she performs the cheeky number “A Cover Is Not the Book.” She’s Mary Poppins by way of Eliza Doolittle, which, while different, is fun in its own way.