Once Disney decided to make a movie called “Mary Poppins Returns,” it automatically placed the film’s creators into something of a no-win situation: A sequel to the beloved, successful 1964 musical couldn’t stray too far from the previous movie lest it alienate fans, but for it to be too similar to its predecessor would call into question the point of making such a long-delayed follow-up in the first place.
It’s possible that there’s a filmmaker out there who could have threaded that particular needle in a way that would integrate the familiar into something new — the way J.J. Abrams did with the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, for instance — but director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee (“Life of Pi”) have taken the lane of least resistance and given us a clone that’s practically “Poppins” (1964) in every way.
The original film has a song about kites, so this one has a song about balloons. The male lead in 1964 was one of a cadre of dancing chimney-sweeps, and in 2018, we get light-on-their-feet lamplighters. Original “Mary Poppins” had its characters leap into an animated segment inside a sidewalk chalk drawing; “Mary Poppins Returns” has them enter the painted design on a porcelain bowl. And so on, and so on, until it appears that every single moment from the first movie will have some sort of correlative in the second.
Granted, if you’re looking to an existing film to provide a blueprint for a new one, there are worse places to start than “Mary Poppins.” And while performers Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman aren’t going to make anyone forget Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and the Sherman Brothers, respectively, the new crew gives it their all to make this overly familiar retread go down in as delightful a way as they can.
We open in the 1930s, where the Depression (or “Great Slump,” as a title card calls it) is putting a financial pinch on Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer); Jane periodically drops in at the family homestead on Cherry Tree Lane to check on Michael, following the death of his beloved wife. He has had to put his painting aside, taking a job at the bank that once employed his father, to feed his own three urchins, Annabel (Pixie Davies, “Humans”), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson).
The household is a disaster, between Michael’s forgetfulness and the advancing years of family housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), so naturally it’s the perfect time for super-nanny Mary Poppins (Blunt) to, as promised, return. And since Dick Van Dyke’s legendarily terrible Cockney accent in the original film pretty much absolved anyone filling his space in the plot from sounding remotely British, why not cast Miranda as good-natured lamplighter Jack, who becomes a love interest for Jane for little reason beyond the fact that she’s pro-union and he works for a living.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is never charmless, although it does fluctuate between the charming and the charm-adjacent. While none of the songs make as strong a first impression as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or “Chim-Chim-Cheree,” there are some lovely tunes: “Can You Imagine That?” sees Mary encouraging the children to use their imaginations; Angela Lansbury leads the ensemble on “Nowhere to Go But Up” (the movie’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” equivalent); and Meryl Streep fills in for Ed Wynn with the boisterously silly “Turning Turtle.”
Other musical moments fall a bit short, however. The lamplighters’ show-stopper “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” plays like a copy of a copy of “Step In Time,” and Whishaw’s “A Conversation” (with his dead wife) didn’t wring the tears from me that it clearly intended to, and if there’s a weak spot where movies can hit me, it’s with a good dead-mommy moment. And while Shaiman and Wittman are unquestionably talented songsmiths (with “Hairspray” and countless other movie and Broadway scores to their credit), the strain of trying to fit into the mode of two different songwriters, the legendary Shermans, shows periodically.
The leads, to their credit, try hard to make magic and occasionally succeed. Blunt, so wonderful as the Baker’s Wife in Marshall’s screen adaptation of “Into the Woods,” brings Mary Poppins’ prickly undertone into even the most potentially gooey moments; her no-nonsense underpinnings make the film’s flights of fancy even more of a delight. As for Miranda, he inhabits the kind of seemingly-effortless performance skills that were once well represented among a subset of Hollywood stars; they may not make musicals like they used to, but it’s gratifying to see that they occasionally make the kind of song-and-dance men who could have held their own at MGM.
The advances in technology since 1964 don’t always work in the new film’s favor; the mix of live-action performers in an animated backdrop comes off more airlessly here than it once did, although when Mary Poppins does her magic or takes flight, however, the effect is (and the effects are) seamless. The screenplay feels doggedly 2018, though, from the third-act ticking-clock chase sequence to the mid-life crisis subplot (you know, for kids — shades of Disney’s summer disappointment “Christopher Robin”).
There’s probably no real reason for “Mary Poppins Returns” to exist at all, but now that it’s here, it does at least find some moments of delight even as it travels a familiar path.