This is definitely the second-best movie of the year where Ben Whishaw plays a marmalade-loving character from the city of London. Definitely. This musical fantasy film was theatrically released by Disney around the world on December 19th, 2018. It has thus far grossed over $213 million against an overall budget of $130 million. Although it opened slightly below expectations, its performance improved in the second weekend, holding against strong holiday competition. It has also received mostly positive reviews, as well as a rigorous awards season campaign for the studio, being one of two major live-action players for them. (The other one being Black Panther) Directed by Rob Marshall, who also made Chicago and Into the Woods, a sequel to Disney’s 1964 classic had been gestating in development hell since the mid-1960s. Both Walt Disney himself and eventual CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg attempted to get one off the ground through the 1980s but were constantly stopped by original author P.L. Travers, who famously hated the adaptation. It wasn’t until late 2015 that the studio was finally able to work something out with Travers’ estate and a sequel was finally underway. It closes one of the longest gaps between installments in history, at 54 years difference. Set in 1930s London about 25 years after the events of the original, the Banks children Michael and Jane, played respectively by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer, are all grown up and have grown disillusioned after a family tragedy. When their childhood home is in danger of repossession, their mysterious magical nanny Mary Poppins, played this time by Emily Blunt, suddenly returns to take care of Michael’s 3 children, Georgie, Annabel, and John. While Jane and Michael scramble to save their house, Mary Poppins shows the children truly fantastical ways to help themselves and their family, all the while bonding with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter Jack. It’s been many, many years since I last watched Mary Poppins, but I remember loving it as a child. Whether it was Dick Van Dyke’s gamely silly accent or Julie Andrews’ wonderful performance, it had a wide-ranging appeal, even though I definitely wasn’t “into” many musicals at the time. I was somewhat concerned by Disney giving the go-ahead for an official sequel but also felt relieved that it wasn’t just another one of their live-action remakes. Not to mention, while Rob Marshall is a talented director, he often feels more like a journeyman than anything else. And yes, Mary Poppins Returns is very derivative of the first film, but it’s still a delightfully good time at the movies. In fairness to Marshall and screenwriter David Magee, it’s hard not to recreate many of the things that happened plotwise in Mary Poppins Returns. It has an overture and an end credit sequence set against a series of paintings, the two main adults are having familial or financial struggles, the children visit Mary’s cousin instead of her uncle, there’s an extended animation sequence, etc. However, the film mostly makes up for its lack of originality with plenty of British charm and loads of colorful spectacle. It may never be “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but it does a fine job at introducing a new generation to this story and inviting older fans back in. Julie Andrews is perfect as Mary Poppins in the original film, no question, but Emily Blunt is able to measure up on her own with her portrayal. Adopting a proper English accent, she embodies all of the well-mannered and magical qualities that the character possesses. She also has a lovely singing voice and can certainly dance when needed to, and never falters in her job to take care of the Banks children. Opposite her is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, a good-hearted lamplighter. I’m a huge fan of the musical Hamilton and seeing him fulfill his dream of co-leading is quite fun, especially since he shamelessly rocks a bad cockney accent. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer play Jane and Michael Banks all grown up, who do wonderful work with showing the loss of childhood. While they clearly love their family, you can tell that they’re desperate to hold onto the past. Their children are played by Pixies Davies, Joel Lawson, and Nathanael Saleh and are wonderful, while Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, David Warner, and Angela Lansbury do great work in their small roles. There’s also a single-scene cameo by original star Dick Van Dyke, whose natural warmth and magical presence are oh so welcomed. While both the star and his character are extremely old, that doesn’t stop the 93-year-old from doing what he does best. Hearing his voice and watching him do a softshoe dance routine brought a wave of nostalgia over my heart, and I mean the good kind. Even more impressive, the producers gave him a couple different options for the scene and he chose to do the hardest one without a second thought. He even says, “I may be circling the drain, but I still got a few steps left in me.” I don’t ever want him to die. And being made by Disney, you can count on Mary Poppins Returns to, at the very least, be a technical marvel. Shot by Dion Beebe, who also photographed several of Marshall’s other films, the cinematography is clean and polished. It employs several sweeping shots of the streets of London or wherever the characters are, as well as clever push-ins. Whether they’re singing, dancing, or just simply talking, we’re always able to track their movements in a very fluid manner. This matches up with the editing by Wyatt Smith, which often melds both long takes and more consistent cuts. It often feels put together like a musical from Golden Age of Hollywood. (Which is undoubtedly the point) It’s during these musical numbers that Rob Marshall’s direction shines best because his Broadway background comes through. The staging and lighting are excellent and oh so joyous to watch. Speaking of music, the instrumental film score is composed and conducted by Marc Shaiman. It truly feels like a score for classic Disney, covering many different instruments and arrangements in a lightly-touched way. Huge, boisterous stings and woodwinds are present in almost every track. Others occasionally feel a bit more jazzy with light drumsets and other dynamic percussion instruments such as slide whistles or woodblocks. The original songs are also pretty fun too, albeit maybe not quite as memorable as the ones in the original film. The most popular one appears to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” a seven-minute song performed by Miranda, but I personally think that “Can You Imagine That?” deserves attention as well. Both feature great vocals and even better, more elaborate dance routines that were absolutely fun to watch. It’s extremely easy to be cynical about these sort of movies these days. The feel-good, family-friendly musical fantasy has more or less been sneered away from Hollywood for a good while now. It’s true that we may not necessarily need something like this, especially since it’s relying heavily on brand recognition, but it doesn’t hurt to just relax and have a nice time every now and then. Mary Poppins Returns is a charming musical that overcomes its lack of imagination with color and joy. Maybe I’m just growing softer as I get older, but this really worked me over something fierce. Thanks to Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a small but memorable part from Dick Van Dyke, P.L. Travers’ classic characters and story live for another generation of children. Even if it’s not quite as earth-shattering as Disney’s first-ever live-action film.