About midway through “Mary Poppins Returns,” Disney’s new sequel to its 1964 movie “Mary Poppins,” we understand why Lin-Manuel Miranda was cast in the Dick Van Dyke role as a humble workman and the biggest fan of the super nanny.
When Mary (played by Emily Blunt) whisks her little charges off to a raucous music hall, Miranda’s Jack the Lamplighter hops up onstage to spit a rap. The film is set in the 1930s, so if you squint and look at it sideways, what he unspools is, in the parlance of that era, a patter song. But truly, the celebrated “Hamilton” creator and original star is rapping while hip-hopping up a staircase of books.
In this exuberant number, called “The Cover Is Not the Book,” Miranda, in pink vest and purple trousers, releases the rhythmic finesse of the Alexander Hamilton that still lives and breathes inside him. And it is here that we see what director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) has said is the theme of “Mary Poppins Returns” — “finding light in the darkness.”
Well, by all means, bring on the optimism: As intolerance and outright cruelty have become dominant chords in our culture, the message of seeing the good in life is a welcome tonic. And the family members who Blunt’s Mary has come to look after do need bucking up, including the grown-up children from the original film — Jane and Michael Banks — and Michael’s three offspring, who are fending for themselves as their father wallows in depression following his wife’s death.
A positive outlook is best — we can all get behind that. But does this movie go beyond that? Does it leave any larger truth you can turn over in your mind? Not really. And this is where it departs from its predecessor.
The original “Mary Poppins” came out in a time of turbulence and changing mores, much like today. The way it tackled gender roles is fascinating to revisit.
To be sure, there are different ways to view how that earlier movie addressed them. Is Mary Poppins — the role that made Julie Andrews a star — a feminist? I see her that way. She is, after all, a strong, single woman who chooses to be childless and independent, has unshakable self-confidence, governs with a firm but kind hand, and moves on to other conquests once her goal is met.
The 1964 Mary stands between two poles. The first is Mrs. Banks, a suffragette so committed to protesting unfairness to women that she neglects her children. Yet her agitation is all for show. At home, she’s meek and subservient to her husband.
Then there’s Mr. Banks, the myopic monarchist who sings about “the age of men” and has no empathy for his wife or his children, whom he berates and insults with indiscriminate vehemence. Enter Mary Poppins, a superior being flying in via umbrella but also — most important — a goal-oriented woman who upends the patriarchy by virtue of her “practically perfect” ways.
Mary attends to everyone’s moral hygiene, as well as their spiritual needs. Remember her hymn-like paean to generosity, “Feed the Birds”? She could hold her own with any of today’s mindfulness gurus: “Never judge things by their appearance.” “Enough is as good as a feast.” “Best foot forward.”
She’s protective of the children, shielding them from rain and sweetening their mystery medicine. She also lies to them, denying their adventures in front of their father — I’m not sure what to do with that. Maybe it’s a sign of her pragmatism or her self-interest as a single woman who doesn’t want to lose her job. Anyway, she strikes me as thoroughly modern.
Fifty-four years later, that Mary is still a tough act to follow. It’s difficult to find nuances, revelations or meaningful commentary in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Blunt’s Mary is imperious, yes, but she can be oddly cowed in a non-Mary-Poppins way by Michael Banks. There are a couple of occasions when he orders her about; she mumbles, “Yes, sir” and ducks her head, a scolded servant instead of a righteous problem-solver.
So our bold, proto-feminist Mary has become a dutiful employee — albeit one with musical skills. She is a palatable, nonthreatening caregiver, a heroine designed for today’s nanny-dependent moms and dads.
As for “finding light in the darkness,” the most fun-loving and likable character is Miranda’s Jack. He’s the one who is still wholly connected to a childlike joy in life. He sings one of the film’s best songs, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” and joins the dancing for bit; this acrobatic number sends lamplighters leaping and bounding around a London park in a full-body show of male dance power (and Pilates training) that includes flashing core-centric pole-dance moves on the lampposts.
The spots of light in this film are lovely, including Van Dyke’s brief, glorious appearance at the end, where, without effort, simply with his unmistakably lighthearted presence, he boosts the film to a happy place. And even if a moviegoer has no particular interest in dance, rap or music-hall dreamscapes, it’s difficult to argue against the sheer delight of seeing brass bands suddenly materialize from the shadows, while characters dive into show tunes and kick lines.
And yet, visual and choreographic splendor isn’t enough.
I’m not at all sure that we’re meant to fall in love with this film’s version of Mary, as those of us of a certain age did with Andrews and her uplifting soprano. Blunt’s Mary can be charming, and she’s a lovely dancer, but she is more self-absorbed, haughty and stern than her precursor. These less appealing attributes are true to the literary Mary Poppins, as author P.L. Travers wrote her. Her nanny was more tough than tender.
It was Walt Disney himself who softened up his star, creating a symbol of good character and good cheer. Thus was born the greatest live-action success of his career. I think he was on to something.
Mary Poppins Returns (PG, 130 minutes) opens Wednesday at area theaters.