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Mary Poppins Returns Movie Review

A Whole New Mary

There's no need to bury the lede here: "Mary Poppins Returns," the 2018 update of Disney's 1964 classic musical, is delightful. It's a fanciful continuation of the tale of a nanny who wafts into the lives of the Banks family in turn of the century London then departs, leaving music, magic, and life lessons in her wake. The new story revisits the Banks children, now grown, but still needing a touch of magic to set right what's out of place in their lives. Mary Poppins comes to the rescue once again in this spirited outing that retains the original film's blend of music, animation, and live-action storytelling. The result is a bright, brisk family entertainment that will appeal to the current crop of kids while also serving as a poignant homage for classic Disney fans.

In this update, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, "In the Heart of the Sea") is a widower with three young children, Annabel, John, and Georgie. He's in mourning but trying to keep up the family home with the help of housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"). His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer, "Lovely & Amazing") drops by just in time to learn that the very bank where Michael works is about to foreclose on the house, thanks to the machinations of the greedy bank president (Colin Firth, "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"). Sent out on an errand, the children end up flying a kite in a nearby park, and Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, "A Quiet Place") arrives, drifting in on the end of the kite string. She leads the children on whimsical adventures and reminds the adults that there is magic to be found in everyday life, if one just knows how to look for it.

Many elements of the original remain in place, having been tweaked but still clearly recognizable. Lin-Manuel Miranda, now famous as the progenitor and star of Broadway smash "Hamilton," updates Dick Van Dyke's amiable chimney sweep role; he's Jack, a lamplighter who's been in love with Jane since childhood. Mr. Miranda is central in many of the film's musical moments, including a marvelously choreographed dance number featuring an army of lamplighters that culminates in a heart-stopping mission to scale London's famous clocktower, Big Ben. His Jack also joins Mary in a toe-tapping vaudeville performance at an animated music hall that they and the children reach by popping into the landscape depicted on a china bowl that sits on the nursery mantel. This is one of several "world within a world" outings that underscore one of the film's stated themes: don't judge a book by its cover, as things are not always as they appear to be.

As the "new" Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt has taken on an obvious challenge. It's the role that made Julie Andrews famous, and comparisons are inevitable. But Ms. Blunt has her own magical touch; she seems to succeed at everything she does, and "Mary Poppins Returns" is no exception. She unerringly blends the stern demeanor of the seemingly no-nonsense nanny with the wink of humor that underpins her often arch observations. Ms. Blunt's Mary Poppins great fun to watch, whether she's turning the children's bath time into an undersea adventure, riding giddily on the back of a bicycle, or playing winking matchmaker between Jack and Jane.

What's missing here are the memorable musical numbers that made the original such a touchstone. The songs are fun but there's no standout; nobody's going to leave the theater humming "Can You Imagine That?" or "A Cover Is Not the Book" the way they would "A Spoonful of Sugar." "Trip a Little Light Fantastic," led by Mr. Miranda, comes close, but it still doesn't reach the heights of a true Disney classic.

The lack of musical showstoppers is buoyed by marvelous cameos from Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, and the great Dick Van Dyke himself. The latter brings the film full circle in a way that is both clever and will be enormously emotionally satisfying for fans of the original.

"Mary Poppins Returns" is surprisingly long (130 minutes) for a family film, and younger kids may be fidgeting by the end. But there's so much to enjoy here - throwbacks to classic Disney animation, gorgeous costumes, and an appealing secondary-color palette that beautifully echoes the original - that others will want to see this update more than once. From her soaring entrance by kite to her departure on a gust of wind, this "Mary Poppins" is a delight from start to finish.

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