Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns is, as the title suggests, part sequel and part pastiche, expertly recreating the feel and tone of the original while still being very much its own thing. In that sense, it pulls much the same trick as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even down to the fan-pleasing cameos.
Set some 30 years after the events of the original Mary Poppins (which the BBC are handily repeating this Christmas, should you require a refresher), the film stars Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as Michael and Jane Banks, the grown-up children from the 1964 film. Michael is a recently widowed father of three (Nathanael Seth, Pixie Davies and Joel Dawson), who's on the verge of losing the family home on Cherry Tree Lane, as a result of missed payments on a bank loan. Sensing that two generations of Banks children are in trouble, magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) descends from the sky to offer her assistance once again. She's aided in her efforts by cheerful cock-er-nee lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a former apprentice of Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweep Bert.
The level of artistry that has gone into Poppins 2.0 is nothing short of extraordinary. It's a remarkable feat of pastiche, recreating not just the sets, but the mix of live action and traditional animation, the distinctive accents (Miranda's dodgy Cockney is almost certainly a tribute) and the general tone. The effect is particularly impressive in the songs – each song is original to the new movie, but each one also corresponds to a classic Sherman brothers song from the original film (Richard Sherman serves as music supervisor), so the jaunty Can You Imagine That performs the same function as A Spoonful of Sugar, the lip-trembling The Place Where The Lost Things Go doubles for Feed The Birds and so on. Admittedly, it's unlikely that any of the new songs (by Hairspray duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) will be as universally loved in 50 years time, but they're still delightful and will have you grinning from ear-to-ear in just the same way.
As for the performances, Blunt is (ahem) practically perfect in every way, opting to make Mary Poppins her own, rather than emulating the peerless Julie Andrews. Her Poppins is a little bit snippier and has a touch of vanity (not to mention a much better hat), but she's every bit as charming, ensuring that audiences will fall in love with her just as much as the Banks children do.
The rest of the cast are equally good, particularly Miranda, who has a perpetual twinkle in his eye, and Whishaw, whose air of melancholy is quietly heart-breaking. There are also enjoyable turns from the likes of Colin Firth (as a duplicitous bank manager) and Meryl Streep (as an eccentric, heavily accented cousin of Mary's called Topsy), while the afore-mentioned cameos from the original film are an absolute joy. That said, Mortimer is sadly under-used, and it's a shame the film couldn't have found a little more time for her oft-mentioned-but-not-really-shown social activism (campaigning for workers' rights and so on).
The presence of Whishaw, coupled with another grouchy housekeeper turn from Julie Walters, also evokes a presumably deliberate association with the Paddington films, which seems only fair, since they borrowed the look of Cherry Tree Lane from Mary Poppins in the first place.
Marshall injects the film with an infectious feelgood energy, borne of a clear love for the original film. He also orchestrates a number of entertaining set-pieces, the highlight of which features Mary and Jack performing A Cover Is Not The Book (the equivalent of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) in an animated music hall sequence.
If there's a problem with the film, it's only that the main emotional arc doesn't hit quite as hard as it did in the original movie, and could perhaps have done with a bit of a last-minute nudge in the right direction in the screenplay – the set-up is there (specifically the idea that Michael and Jane have dismissed the magic of their youth as childhood fantasy), but it's strangely under-developed, so the finale doesn't quite have the intended emotional impact. It's also fair to say that Mary is oddly passive in the finale, which fits with the idea that she's encouraging the other characters to reach their potential, but backfires slightly because it leaves you wanting more of Blunt's performance.
Those minor niggles aside, this is a joyous family feelgood picture that will enchant die-hard Poppins fans and newcomers alike. It's also a masterclass in pastiche and Marshall's best film since Chicago.