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‘Mary Poppins Returns’ tries so hard to top original, but can’t

A 10-year-old Tom Tangney could not get enough of the movie version of Mary Poppins when it first hit theaters. I learned how to play all the film’s songs on the piano and had earnest discussions with my fellow grade-schoolers about whether Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or anti-disestablishmentarianism was the longest word in the English language.

And then, of course, there was the beatific vision of Julie Andrews, practically perfect in every way.

It would seem impossible to be able to re-capture the magic of that 1964 gem a half century later, and, sure enough, this 2018 sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” can’t. It’s a valiant effort though, very earnest in its homage to the original but lacking both its winning charm and especially those buoyant songs.

But it’s not for a lack of trying. For starters, the storyline is quite psychologically astute for a children’s film. The boy and girl in the original are now adults, the grown-up boy having three kids of his own. But tragedy has struck this Banks family, leaving the children motherless.

“It’s been a difficult year for our family. Everything has fallen to pieces since you left.”
“I miss mother.”

The family is coping as best it can but then it gets an eviction notice at their home on Cherry Tree Lane. The Banks are at the breaking point when a long-ago nanny suddenly appears.

Mary Poppins, in her roundabout way, helps both generations of Banks cope with the loss of the most important person in all their lives. That’s arguably a richer premise than the original’s.

As for the cast, Emily Blunt is probably a better actress than Julie Andrews but she’s not a better Mary Poppins. Andrews is incandescent in the part – charming, beguiling, and welcoming; Blunt is shrewder and more mysterious, and definitely not as much fun. (That may indeed be closer to author P.L. Travers idea of MP, but it’s not Walt Disney’s.) And Lin-Manuel Miranda, as a kind of earthbound sidekick for Mary Poppins, is no match for Dick Van Dyke, who pops off the screen while Miranda blends into the background.

But the sequel suffers most when it comes to comparing soundtracks. To be fair, composer Marc Shaiman (of “Hairspray” fame) offers up a number of reasonable facsimiles of some of the lesser songs from the original. The chimney sweeps’ song-and-dance number “Step in Time” becomes the lamplighters’ anthem “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” has a nice companion piece in “Nowhere to Go but Up,” and the moving “Feed the Birds” is equaled if not surpassed in the sequel’s best song “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”

But missing almost entirely are the delightfully catchy, frothy, gleeful songs that define the eternal appeal of “Mary Poppins.” Songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

“Mary Poppins Returns” is a dutiful sequel with passable songs but what it lacks is the irresistible sense of fun that Julie Andrews and the Sherman Brothers’ songs brought to the one and only “Mary Poppins.” I’d be surprised if many 10-year-olds were out singing these new songs on today’s playgrounds, let alone 50 years from now.

More of Tom Tangney’s movie reviews

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