How do you create a sense of wonder at a time when it’s possible to show anything on-screen? Rob Marshall pulls off that feat with the terrific Mary Poppins Returns, which is fun and uplifting and dazzling, but always keeps its emotions and its visual effects grounded.
Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) and her brother Michael (Ben Whishaw) from the 1964 Mary Poppins are adults now, and the recently widowed Michael has three moppets of his own. Though not as much of a stuffy asshole as his father — how could he be, really? — Michael still isn’t giving his children the attention they need. Re-enter Mary Poppins (My Little Pony: The Movie’s Emily Blunt), who along with scruffy lamplighter Jack (my boyfriend Lin-Manuel Miranda) takes the kids in her charge and maybe, just maybe, might save this new Mr. Banks along the way.
The danger in the modern Disney mega-sequel is to fill in plot holes that don’t actually exist, but Returns retains the original’s dogged refusal to explain why things are happening. Similarly, while narrative coherence was never a priority for Uncle Walt — have you tried watching Dumbo, Pinocchio, or the original Mary Poppins lately? — Returns tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and it isn’t just a bunch of stuff that happens and oh by the way your asshole of a father really does love you even if he has no cultural impetus to show it.
Mary Poppins Returns is front-loaded with the more overtly fantastical, effects-heavy setpieces, and while they only could have been achieved with modern CGI, they still feel like an organic extension of the original film. The underwater fantasy of “Can You Imagine That?” is a statement of purpose akin to “A Spoonful of Sugar,” while “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” is the expected journey into a cartoon. Mixing live-action with animation is no big whoop since pretty much all big blockbusters are live-action mixed with animation these days, but the animation here retains a classical 2-D aesthetic. “A Cover Is Not the Book” is a full-on showstopper, which proves that no amount of pixels can produce greater fireworks than Blunt and Miranda singing and dancing together.
The setpieces in Returns’ second half take place in the film’s real world, making it somewhat ironic that the comparatively lo-fi “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” dance sequence is the film’s high point. Sure, it’s probably drenched in CGI — if Derek Jarman’s Blue was made today, the visual effects credits would be as long as your arm — but unlike the analogous “Step in Time” from the original Mary Poppins, it feels like all the fancy leerie hoofing in “Trip” is happening live in front of the camera.
Would P.L. Travers be horrified by Mary Poppins indulging in bawdy music-hall innuendo, complete with vocal growl? Surely. Would Uncle Walt disapprove of how Jane Banks is now a labor organizer, which Returns treats with more respect than the original did her mother’s suffragette activities? Likely. Will my Trump-voting relatives grumble on Facebook about the presence of people of color in 1930s London? I wouldn’t be surprised. But for those who can open their hearts to Mary Poppins Returns, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Rated PG. Opens Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the AMC Van Ness 14, the AMC Dine-In Kabuki, the Presidio Theatre, and the AMC Metreon 16.
Read more from SF Weekly’s Year in Film issue:
The 10 Best Movies of 2018
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Looking for Hope from Frostbite Falls to Emerald City
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2018 Movie Moments You Might Have Missed
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