The first and perhaps most important thing to say about Mary Poppins Returns is that it does its 1964 predecessor no disgrace whatsoever. In late 2018, it would be more inappropriate than ever to make a huffy declaration along the lines of "Rob Marshall raped my childhood", but the film never, for a moment, allows for that possibility: it's a fine-tuned entertainment that knows it will benefit from fuzzy-headed, soft-hearted festive viewing, but - crucially - doesn't entirely rely on that seasonal goodwill. Instead, it keeps finding new, or at least newish, ways to dazzle or charm us - Sandy Powell costumes, sets that spin on their axis, smoother transitions between live-action and animation, Meryl Streep singing in a Slavic accent - and its best sequences make this process look effortlessly easy. As with most Disney productions of this century, it's more conspicuously musical than what's gone before, and if the songs (by Hairspray's Marc Shaiman) aren't instant classics, they've been compiled with wit and craft enough to ping around between your ears for some while after the end credits. Honestly, dear reader, I found myself sitting gawping and gobsmacked through long stretches: when did Marshall - the choreographer-turned-indifferent director who cut Chicago into ribbons of tinsel, and made a heavy-handed horlicks of Into the Woods - become such a safe pair of hands?
My rational brain tried to break the spell. Yes, the movie forms the latest stage in the Mouse House's fiendish 21st century masterplan to sell those childhoods back to us, school holiday by school holiday; we'll have to concede that the current generation of executives is doing far more to justify their annual bonus than those who greenlit The Second Jungle Book at the start of the millennium. It's often a matter of small, poignant echoes: the trace elements of chimney sweep Dick van Dyke singing "Supercalifragilistic..." recognisable in lamplighter Lin-Manuel Miranda inviting us to "Trip a Little Light Fantastic", or the penguins popping up throughout "A Cover is Not the Book" to remind us of an earlier, animated day at the races. And I think it matters that this isn't one of the company's live-action remakes. We haven't seen this story before, just the characters in different forms: Mary (now Emily Blunt, with a cutglass accent that grated, then grew on me) guiding the fully grown Banks offspring through difficult times. (You're amazed no-one thought to pitch a sequel back in 1965, but the world was changing, and the studio brains trust thought very differently back then.) Marshall moves them around in generally elevating, sometimes soaring ways, and delegating large parts of the material to born showmen like Shaiman and Miranda ensures the film has none of that exec-level neurosis that dogged August's Christopher Robin; the closest Mary Poppins Returns demonstrates to a hang-up is Streep swinging from a chandelier like a suggestible auntie after one sherry too many.
Amid all the spirited prancing, you could overlook the fact that David Magee's script barely troubles to outline a plot - or, perhaps, that it contains exactly the right amount of plot for a musical to twirl around. An institution, in this case the Banks family home, is revealed as under grave financial threat, and then everyone on screen and behind the camera has to put on a show to save it. That's it. Just as Mary P. is recalled from the heavens to correct the lopsidedness of the Banks household - providing a measure of maternal care to its youngest - so too we witness this icon called upon to correct a certain flimsiness within the material. At the eleventh hour, she nudges her charges to find the share certificate that will keep a roof over their heads, then - when this scheme looks to be at risk of failure - she enables the breathless business with ladders and bikes that permits Miranda's Jack to scale Big Ben's clockface and literally turn back time, as good a visual metaphor as any for what the film entire is doing. (Again, most viewers - young and old - will watch this sequence in a state of such childlike wide-eyed giddiness that they won't stop to question why the mortal Jack is the one risking life and limb to achieve this, while the deathless Mary - who only needs to open her umbrella to fly - is stood looking up at him.)
At points, you can catch it trying a little too hard to please. "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" would play as well without the insistent cutbacks to Miranda looking mighty pleased with himself, and as to his potted guide to Cockney rhyming slang, well, this is where those fuzzy heads and soft hearts come in. (You're reminded that Poppinsworld has always been a misty-eyed, Americanised vision of Merrie England, some of it fit only for kids.) It's pushier and more effortful than the recent Paddington revival, hoofing its way into your heart and imagination rather than politely knocking: set the shamelessness of a showstopper titled "Nowhere To Go But Up" against "Let's Go Fly a Kite"'s blithe innocence, and Poppins 2 appears recognisably the work of showbiz mums and dads. Still, it scarcely matters when the film's deus ex machina dodders on at the last, dissipating any waft of contrivance with the quickness of his feet: yup, even the guest stars get to sing and dance. Even those of us left unmoved by the live-action Lion King trailer - those of us who may be dreading the idea of Tim Burton's Dumbo - may at this point find ourselves bowing our heads before the movie's unrelenting professionalism, its persistent charm offensive: it's as good a Poppins movie as we could have expected fifty years on, and - no matter that this carries with it an air of the faintest praise - by far the best thing Rob Marshall has ever done for the movies.
Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in cinemas nationwide.