The Challenge of Playing Mary Poppins

Emily Blunt not only had to live up to a famous character, but also live up to Julie Andrews.
Courtesy of Disney

[This story contains spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns]

What makes a movie character so iconic that you can only associate one actor with the role? This question hovers over one of the big new holiday releases, Mary Poppins Returns. The film, a sequel to the beloved Disney version from 1964, once again features the practically perfect nanny who descends from the clouds to help a British family right itself in the first half of the 20th century. But, of course, it’s been more than 50 years since the original film was released, so Mary Poppins is no longer played by Julie Andrews. The sequel, taking place only 25 years after the events of the first film, instead features Emily Blunt, facing down what may have seemed like an impossible task. Blunt is quite good in Mary Poppins Returns even if she’s never quite able to break away from her predecessor’s shadows.

If you’ve seen the original Mary Poppins, frankly, you’ll see a lot of connections between that film and Rob Marshall’s new movie. In both, Mary arrives to serve as the nanny for the Banks children; in the first one, there are two children, but now there are three. That’s because this time, the gruff-ish dad who works at a domineering British bank is a grown-up version of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), and the three children are his. Michael’s sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has now taken the place of her flighty mother — in the original film, Mrs. Banks was fighting for women’s voting rights, and Jane is fighting for the cause of the common worker. Once again, Mary travels with the children (and a Cockney-accented charmer, this time a lamplighter played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) into an animated world, and she once again is able to help save the day when all seems lost.

This is both a good and a bad thing for Blunt, who’s had a very good year considering her work in A Quiet Place, co-starring, co-written and directed by her husband, John Krasinski. Blunt almost instantly proves herself to be a very worthy candidate to step into Mary Poppins’ shoes and wield the umbrella with a talking parrot head at its top. The new film’s script leans a little too hard into emphasizing Mary’s caustic wit and her willingness to gaslight the children into thinking that all their fantastical misadventures are just in their collective imagination. These are elements that do appear in the first film — one of the original’s funniest moments is when Andrews does a deadpan slow clap when Dick Van Dyke’s chimney-sweep Bert fails to transport the Banks children into one of his chalk paintings. The difference is that those moments are window dressing, as opposed to the way the character is developed.

It is to Blunt’s credit that whatever flaws Mary Poppins Returns has, none of them can really be laid at her feet. Watching her in every scene, it’s hard not to see her as playing Julie Andrews, not Mary Poppins herself. She’s not embodying the nanny as much as she’s trying to emulate the actress who originated the role. But the real issue is that the script, and the film’s many new songs (for good or ill, none of the songs from the original appear in this movie aside from being utilized briefly in the score itself), are heavily echoing the original film. Though there are a few twists and turns in the new story, its episodic nature is clearly aping the structure of its predecessor. And many of the songs serve the same function as songs in the first film did, from an extended dance sequence featuring Miranda’s character, Jack, and his fellow “leeries,” that feels like the chimney-sweep dance sequence from the original; to a side-track song where we visit a relative of Mary’s (this time played by Meryl Streep) who’s getting up to shenanigans on the ceiling.

It’d be one thing if the film was simply too content to echo its predecessor. What’s perhaps worse is that, by so strongly inviting comparisons to the original Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Returns only makes it clear that the magic of the first film can’t be replicated. For the most part, the cast can’t be faulted; the stealth MVP is Whishaw, who makes it almost tangibly obvious how heartbroken Michael is at having lost his wife and potentially losing his home. And Blunt is exactly as charming as you might hope she is. Though none of the songs are remotely as charming or tuneful as those from the original film, she belts them out suitably well. Blunt’s innate charisma makes it so you never doubt that she could take over for Mary Poppins.

The shame is that she’s given this material to work with. Really, none of the actors in Mary Poppins Returns stumble in embodying either direct analogs to the characters in the first Mary Poppins or older versions of beloved characters. But there are few moments when this movie truly comes alive, and none is more instructive than the last time the film works. It’s when we see none other than Dick Van Dyke himself. After playing the elder Mr. Dawes of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank in the first movie, he now plays the elderly Mr. Dawes Jr., mostly serving as a savior to the Banks family in their most serious moment of need. But watching Van Dyke sing and dance with an energy that far exceeds his nine-plus decades of life is the most thrilling moment in this movie. Which, of course, highlights the larger issue: Mary Poppins Returns is not a terrible film, and Blunt is as great a choice to play the title character as possible. But all it does is remind you how wonderful the first Mary Poppins is, and how this movie can’t hope to measure up.