December 19, 2018 10:07 AM

In the new Disney musical extravaganza Mary Poppins Returns, years have passed since the world’s original supernanny brought serenity and some much-needed sugar to 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Now, sadly, the Banks household is once again at sixes, sevens and possibly eights.  

The grown-up Michael (Ben Whishaw), a widower with children, weeps and wrings his hands—he’s fallen perilously behind on the mortgage. You’d think the poor man might sustain himself by recalling the adventures of his boyhood (hopping in and out of chalk drawings and all that), but he treats those idyllic days as troubled, barely suppressed memories of irrational exuberance.

Oh, Michael, you hopeless grownup!  All you need to do is look out on the blustery London weather and behold Ms. Poppins. Once more she descends from the sky, like a woman riding a funicular of wind. She’ll make everything spit-spot!

Maybe, arguably, even spitter-spotter than strictly necessary.

Emily Blunt
Courtesy Disney

Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) takes over the role that won an Oscar for Julie Andrews and her silvery peal of a voice. Blunt isn’t a musical-comedy star like her predecessor, who always invested her singing with so much personality and theatrical focus that, for all practical purposes, she was the music.  But Blunt can carry a tune confidently and tunefully, and her acting is charming.

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Looking like a more vigorous Deborah Kerr—the actress who, back in the day, was Hollywood’s go-to star for prim British beauty—Blunt gives us a Mary with less starch, a Mary who’s less of a nursery commando. She’s playfully sly and adaptably clever, making minute internal calculations to solve any and every snafu. This is perhaps the only time you might imagine a Mary who, in our more advanced times, could be an Instagram influencer (#spoonfulofsugar) or president of Hogwarts.

A round of applause, then: Blunt is flawless as a woman described as perfect in every way. Whenever she’s sweeping her magical way through, above and even below London, the movie is the jolly, jolly holiday it wants to be.

Return’s one problem (not a small one) is a failure of nerve and—even when Mary turns bath time into a wondrous journey down the drain and into the ocean—a failure of imagination. The film mostly sticks to an overly cautious strategy of reworking indelible images and moments from the 1964 Mary Poppins: Chimney sweeps become lamplighters, kites give way to balloons (another enchanting musical-comedy star, Angela Lansbury, turns up for that scene), and chalk drawings are replaced by—glazed ceramics?

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If Disney played it any safer, Mary and Michael would be wearing hazmat uniforms.

The new score, by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, is melodic and sugary, driven along at times by oom-pah-pah merriment, but it too deliberately echoes (and fails to equal) the original. None of these new songs stirs the emotions with the simple, rewarding directness of hits from other recent family-oriented movies, such as “Remember Me” from Coco or “Tightrope” from The Greatest Showman. The music falls short—it’s fragilicious.

(In theaters, rated PG)

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