I grew up with musicals from the 1960s.
Well, two musicals from the ’60s. Oliver! and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were staples in my house for about as far back as I can remember. The former’s not much of a surprise — my mom loved the Artful Dodger, and my uncle played a terrifyingly great Bill Sykes in a local production of the show when I was very small — but the latter? Kind of a weird one. Penned by Ian Fleming as a strange metaphorical apology to his son for focusing too much on James Bond instead of him (or something), Chitty is not one of those old musicals that inspires a lot of nostalgia in my parents’ generation and certainly not one that inspires any in mine.
But listen: I’ll go to my grave thanking my mom for giving me and my brother Chitty over its Disney predecessor, an immensely popular musical that also starred a fantastically limber Dick Van Dyke and featured memorable songs from Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. She gave us Chitty over Mary Poppins.
I’m okay with that.
Although I’m sure this makes me an outlier, I just don’t have the requisite Poppins nostalgia Disney is banking on to bring in audiences for its long-awaited (and, dare I say, unasked for) sequel to the 1964 original, Mary Poppins Returns. And I do mean requisite: Either a longstanding love for Mary Poppins or a child’s passive whimsy is required to enjoy this continuation of Walt Disney’s most highly regarded live-action musical.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and indeed nothing about Mary Poppins Returns itself is inherently bad. Director Rob Marshall is certainly at his best and most comfortable here since at least Chicago, Emily Blunt truly is practically perfect in every way, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is a joy to watch if only because he’s one of the few performers nowadays who simply exudes joy in everything he does.
While the songs sort of blur together, there are some standout sequences (the animated ones are really lovely), and the spirit of the original Poppins saturates the sequel in a way that feels genuine and not forced or self-referential. It’s a fine sequel that kids will probably love if they can make it through the 130-minute run time, and parents probably won’t hate it since 130 minutes is a pretty decent amount of time for a nap.
But if you’re not a kid, and you didn’t grow up loving Julie Andrews’ magical nanny? I hate to say it, but this movie will probably bore you. There are too many songs and subplots that just don’t need to be there. (Related: Who told Meryl Streep she could sing, who put her in that awful wig, and why is she doing a nutty and inexplicably Russian Marlene Dietrich impression in this movie?) Meanwhile, the Poppins philosophy of imparting life lessons upon children — and adults who have forgotten what it’s like to be children — by basically tricking them with blasé displays of magic kind of wears thin after a while.
And then there’s the problem of the major musical numbers in Returns existing solely as equivalents to the original’s classic — and much, much better — ones. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” desperately wishes it could compare to “Step In Time.” “Turning Turtle” is not nearly enough to make you want to love to laugh. And you thought “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was a show-stopping tongue-twister? Well, “A Cover is Not the Book” features Miranda kind of (but not really) rapping a longwinded tale about a king and a fool in double time and a Cockney accent while Blunt does her best vaudeville routine in a bizarrely meta Velma Kelly wig! Take that, penguins!
I’m getting a little punchy, so I’ll leave it at that. I don’t really have the heart or the inclination to drag Mary Poppins Returns for misfires that most likely won’t apply to the masses. The simple truth is that while this film didn’t do anything for me, I can’t fault anyone who sees it and enjoys it because my response to it is entirely subjective and based on a lifetime without any kind of Poppins hype. For me, it really all comes down to the fact that I don’t care for Mary Poppins as a character or a Disney property, and I didn’t find anything in this sequel to make me change my mind.
That said, give me Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Bang, and I’ll be the happiest 5-year-old in an grown-up suit in all the land.