Though comfortably is perhaps an exaggeration: Michael’s wife and the mother of his three young kids passed away in the previous year, and the family is still reeling emotionally and financially. (Yes, this is yet another Disney addition to the cinema of dead mothers.) Like his father before him, Michael is a Mr. Banks very much in need of saving. Also like his father, he is a Mr. Banks who works at the bank—specifically, Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Unlike his father, however, Michael merely has a low-level job as a teller. Worse, he has taken out a loan with the house as collateral. The bank intends to repossess 17 Cherry Tree Lane, at least unless Jane and Michael can locate some valuable bank shares that had accrued to their father. But where could the shares be hidden? Clearly this is a job for—well, you know perfectly well who. It’s right up there in the title.
Now played by Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins arrives, as always, from the sky. But this time she doesn’t come via your typical flying-umbrella transit. Rather, on an afternoon of heavy wind—one presumes it is blowing from the east—Michael’s youngest, Georgie, takes the battered family kite from the attic for a spin in the park. And what should happen but, as Georgie explains, “I was flying a kite, and it got caught on a nanny!” Mary Poppins is reeled down to the ground like a fish on a line, and she is reacquainted with Jane and Michael. (Michael: “It is wonderful to see you.” Mary Poppins: “Yes it is, isn’t it?”)
To quote Dick Van Dyke’s Bert from the original film: Can’t put me finger on what lies in store / But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.
And indeed, though the particular notes are altered, Mary Poppins Returns follows the melodies of its predecessor with conspicuous precision. Bert’s role as cockney co-conspirator is taken up by Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, Bert’s former apprentice, who has decided against a career in chimney sweeping in favor of one igniting the gaslights of London. In return for these efforts, Jack is given a big song-and-dance number with his fellow lamplighters, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” that apes Bert’s own “Steppin’ Time” so closely that it could easily provoke a lawsuit. Like the other songs in the film, all written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of Hairspray fame, it is an appealing effort, even if it lacks the ineffable magic of the numbers that longtime Disney songsmiths Robert and Richard Sherman sprinkled throughout the original. (The best of the new bunch is probably a big stage number on the difference between appearance and reality, titled “A Cover Is Not the Book.”)
The Banks children’s adventures with Mary Poppins also echo their father and aunt’s in ways that will seem either cunning homage or shameless rip-off, according to taste. After a notably pelagic bath time, the kids and their nanny leap into the illustration on a piece of china, much as their forebears leaped into a sidewalk chalk drawing. In place of a visit to the free-floating Uncle Albert, the children meet a cousin, Topsy (played by Meryl Streep), whose house has a tendency to turn itself upside down. Mary Poppins continues to glide effortlessly up the banister, and the other special effects are deliberately retro in keeping with the mood of the original. And, of course, it all ends once again in the park, though this time with balloons rather than kites.