At the beginning of “Mary Poppins Returns” we’re told that the story takes place, quote, “in the days of the great Slump.” Meaning the Depression, of course, except that the elation merchants at Disney avoided the word out of concern that it might be depressing. Rather than run the same risk, I’ll simply note that I found this sequel deeply slumping. The misuse of talent is what slumped me the most.
To say that Julie Andrews has been replaced by Emily Blunt would be perpetrating consumer fraud. No one could replace Julie Andrews, with her ability to make Mary Poppins brisk but fond, dry but warm, a nanny who clearly adored her young charges from the first moment she set eyes on them.
What needs to be said about Emily Blunt before anything else is that she’s superb in almost every role she plays. But performers don’t work in a void. They need help from directors—Rob Marshall in this case—in finding and sustaining the right tone. From the moment this Mary Poppins makes her entrance at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, something is wrong, the tone is off: She’s cool and prim, or vaguely disdainful; awfully full of herself and groundbound, rather than buoyant, even though she’s just floated in on a kite, rather than an umbrella.
She loosens up eventually, and so does the movie. But Emily Blunt is a prisoner of the production’s calculations, like everyone else in the cast. Many sequences are cleverly conceived, and interspersed with cute animated characters, as in the original, yet explosions of spontaneity are few and far between.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the prodigy who created “Hamilton” on Broadway, is a genial presence throughout. He plays Jack, a Cockney lamplighter subbing for Bert, the Cockney chimney-sweep played so endearingly by Dick Van Dyke in 1964. Van Dyke has a cameo here, and it’s the most affecting moment in the film.
The two children of the’64 film are the grown-ups of the house in “Mary Poppins Returns”: Ben Whishaw is Michael; Emily Mortimer is his sister, Jane. Michael’s wife has died before the story begins, so he’s raising three kids as a single father who’s constantly befuddled and often angry.
The suspense derives from Depression-era—I mean Slump- era—economics. The bank is about to foreclose the house unless Michael can find a stock certificate proving that…but never mind the financial details, just try to get your head around the idea of a Mary Poppins movie turning on money, banking and the terrifying threat of homelessness. The point of the plot in the original was the joy Mary Poppins brought to a household that sorely lacked it. Fifty-four years later, the quest for joy has been replaced by a search for securities that confer security. What in the world were they thinking?
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.