Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, the feverishly anticipated sequel to the 1964 original, is incandescent. In the opening scene, the camera looms above the flame of a street lamp, just before Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter and the film’s narrator, extinguishes it. Daylight is breaking in pinky yellow, and Jack careens through the city on his bicycle, directing our attention toward “the lovely London sky.” Later, the Banks family, each of them grasping a plump balloon, wafts and bobs about a dazzling blue sky, buoyant with whimsy. With diligent tenderness, the film pursues lightness—how to cultivate it, how to be it. No longer are we merely concerned with one self-satisfied father’s aloofness toward his children—a conflict treated in the first film as no less than a battle for his soul—but instead we must contend with a far knottier conundrum: how to be happy in the wake of tragedy.
These are timely lessons, as we quickly learn. Set in 1930s London, England heaves under the strain of the Great Depression, and the Banks family is in the throes of financial and emotional crisis. Jane and Michael, the children of George and Winifred Banks (David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns)—and Mary Poppins’s charges in the first film—are now fully grown. Michael (Ben Whishaw), an artist and part-time bank teller, lives with his own family in the Banks homestead on Cherry Tree Lane. But a funereal gloom has descended on them: Michael grieves the death of his wife Kate and staggers in the melancholic, yet frenetic aftermath. Bewildered by the prospect of managing a household—previously his wife’s domain—he relies upon his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), as well as his three small children, Anabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson).
The family’s circumstances are precarious at best. The children, courageous and capable, strive to assuage their father’s burden, and Jane, now a labor organizer, tends to them with the empathy that her mother largely lacked. The tipping point arrives early in the film when a disheveled Michael learns that because he has not repaid a loan to the bank, and because he has lost the certificate verifying the shares his father purchased for him, he will lose the family home—if, that is, he cannot scrounge up the certificate, or the cash, in a perilously short space of time.
These are high stakes. Here is a bereaved family so topsy-turvy that mourning becomes an afterthought, and the children must thrive on responsibility instead of wonder. And in the midst of all this, they are threatened with homelessness. Of course we know that the Banks family will never come to ruin—not when Mary Poppins can wield her influence—but the gravity of their predicament, and their yen for solace in the murk of pain and insecurity, imbue the film with resonant somberness.
When Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) arrives, she glides through the Banks’s door with characteristic primness and ease, reminding an astonished Michael that “we are still not a codfish.” Blunt’s interpretation of the character draws elegantly on Julie Andrews’s presentation of pleasant self-assurance while introducing a dash of beguiling humor. Blunt’s Poppins nods jovially at the family’s disbelief, while anticipating the pleasure of enveloping them in a second whirlwind of magic. She conjures wonder in order to nourish her charges with both joy and confidence in their burgeoning imaginations. And while Mary Poppins Returns thankfully draws less gawking attention to the titular character’s physical charms, Mary is, of course, immaculately coiffed, with an enviably snappy collection of coats and kitten heels, and she is just a bit vain. When Jane and Michael exclaim that it is marvelous to see her again, she agrees while primping in the entryway mirror.
In superficial terms, Mary resumes her post to do what she did years before: to care for the Banks children. But just as before, her aims are finespun and rather more challenging. She must demonstrate to the Banks children the nurturing potential of pleasure and fancy—“some stuff and nonsense could be fun,” she sings—while gently encouraging them to mourn their mother. I happened to attend a press screening on the day preceding the one year anniversary of my own mother’s death; perhaps unsurprisingly, I melted into tears as Blunt delivered a compassionate and graceful performance of “The Place Where the Lost Things Go,” wherein she reassures Anabel, John, and Georgie that death never means annihilation, but rather a cosmic rearrangement. The song supplies an answer to Michael’s earlier lament, “A Conversation,” in which he considers how his late wife always knew what to do, and how in her absence he is bereft. “Where’d you go?” he wonders, slouched in the attic, encompassed by dust-soft relics from his childhood and marriage.
Although Mary Poppins Returns is an ardent, nearly shot-for-shot love letter to the first film, its more somber thematic premise pairs with its efforts to craft characters and a narrative that are more culturally evolved. In order to incorporate Jack into the larger Poppins narrative, the film introduces him as a former chimney sweep who, as a child, was under Bert’s tutelage and who, conveniently, did not die of black lung before adolescence. He and Mary revel in one another’s company with platonic warmth; there are no traces of the sexual disappointment Bert (Dick Van Dyke) betrays during “Jolly Holiday” when Mary thanks him for “never pressing [his] advantage” and summarily indicates that they will never be an item. In fact, we learn that Jack has adored Jane Banks since youth, formerly gazing up at her nursery window, an image making manifest the socioeconomic berth that once precluded their companionship.
As an adult, neither Jane nor her family harbor any sense of class superiority, and she and Jack timidly—and very adorably—enter into a fledgling romance. Admiral Boom (David Warner) still presides over Cherry Tree Lane with militant neurosis, and he still possesses a baffling cache of gunpowder and weaponry, but he is mercifully no longer sputtering racial epithets. Michael, despite some spare, intermittent endeavors to project a stiff upper lip, allows his children to bear witness to his sorrow and, in pointed contrast with his father, never leaves them in question of his love. Ben Whishaw’s paternal masculinity is at once cottony and slightly tremulous: an empathetic portrayal of someone determined to be the sort of father that his own probably wasn’t.
Yet, until his wife’s death, he was, in all likelihood, a relatively passive parent—not as a result of patriarchal disconnect or apathy, but because he is, over the course of the film, still cultivating the assertiveness Kate seems to have possessed, and that he needs in order to advocate for his family. When the score drifts into his father’s theme, “The Life I Lead,” it settles against Michael’s troubled countenance like a sonic subconscious, as he muddles over what sort of father to be; that is to say, what sort of father will deliver his family from their financial catastrophe and regain the pacific household atmosphere fostered by his wife. Unlike so many men of his era, he must accustom himself to domesticity.
By contrast, the film indicates that Jane Banks, who lives alone in a London flat, sports trousers, and organizes labor union rallies, will not exchange autonomy for romantic companionship, and Jack, who appreciates her progressive politics, seems like the sort of partner who will both understand and embrace these terms. Mortimer, a preposterously under-celebrated actress, crafts Jane’s character with luminous precision: She is beaming and passionate, a steady, smiling port in the storm for her brother, niece, and nephews. It is Jane who eagerly urges Mary Poppins to resume her post while Michael frets about wages (it’s unclear whether Mary actually cares about being paid for her labor, or if she needs the money; she tends to broach the discussion as a matter of ceremony and then just as quickly wave it away).
The question of financial stability looms throughout the rest of the film, and is rather unfortunately entwined in its narrative resolution. The emotional climax seems to arrive as the Banks family bids farewell to their home, resigned to the loss of the bank share certificate but flush with familial solidarity, regardless of place or material goods. But they are rescued at the eleventh hour by Michael’s tuppence—the ones he intended for feeding the birds twenty years ago. At the conclusion of the 1964 film, George Banks, having just been fired in a most humiliating fashion, thrusts his son’s coins into the hand of his boss, Mr. Dawes Senior: “Guard it well,” Banks sneers, in parting. Dawes Senior kicks the bucket hours later, but his son, Mr. Dawes Junior (a jubilant cameo from Dick Van Dyke in the 2018 film) seems to have taken George Banks’s words to heart. In a somewhat muddled turn of events, he explains to Michael that he invested the money for his future use; it is enough to settle his debt and to restore the family to middle-class comfort.
Adult Michael is, understandably, thrilled by this monetary deus ex machina: his family, after all, can keep their home. But in the first film, young Michael appeared appropriately horrified by the imperialist endeavors of his father’s employers—the “railways through Africa” and “plantations of ripening tea” recited in “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” We can assume little Michael doesn’t comprehend the racist colonial politics of the executives, and perhaps the 1964 film wasn’t too concerned with them either. And yet, when George, backed by the chorus of bank partners, pressures young Michael to choose responsibility over whimsy, and his son refuses, the scene registers as a defiant condemnation of corporate greed.
The end of the film also reduces Mary Poppins’s role to something less magical than it could be. Her involvement in defeating the wicked banker William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), at the film’s climax, pushes her intangible, and altogether more pivotal, support to the margins. Instead of encouraging the children’s imaginations—unlocked and jubilantly voracious—it reduces the story to a problem with money, solved in the nick of time.
These, however, are comparatively minor quibbles regarding a film that is not only exquisitely artful, but also a tenderly applied balm. “Everything is possible, even the impossible,” declares Mary, delivering, as usual, an exuberant paradox. In these last years, we have inhabited terrifying paradoxes, navigating a reality the most privileged of us had always deemed impossible, a Poppinsian world turned inside out and viciously deformed. And yet, Mary Poppins Returns encourages us to hope anyway, to conjure luminescence however we can, to commit the blazing, radical act of believing whatever seems most impossible now.