Emily Blunt, Joel Dawson, Pixie Davies, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nathanael Saleh in an animated sequence that feels a little familiar. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns works hard to evoke the charms of the original 1964 film: it replicates many of them, in slavish fashion.

Remember that famous animated set piece from the first film in which live-action characters jump into a two-dimensional sidewalk chalk drawing? Here, they leap into a painting on a ceramic bowl. 

And how about that Step in Time number from the original, featuring dancing chimney sweeps? In the sequel, it’s a phalanx of London lamplighters performing parkour tricks on bicycles.

Half a century ago, Ed Wynn, as Mary’s eccentric uncle Albert, floated up to the ceiling while singing I Love to Laugh. Now it’s Meryl Streep’s turn, as Mary’s eccentric cousin Topsy, trilling Turning Turtle as she gives a tour of her upside-down repair shop.

Homage is one thing, but this reeks less of nostalgia than sweat. There is little tolerance for spontaneity in a film that feels too calibrated to be magical; reactions like delight and surprise - when they occur - feel manufactured.

Mary Poppins Returns centres on the now-grown Banks children: Michael (Ben Whishaw), a widower with three children (Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson and Nathanael Saleh), and his unmarried sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer). Jane, like her suffragist mother before her, is an activist for progressive causes.

Emily Blunt, Joel Dawson, Pixie Davies, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nathanael Saleh in an animated sequence that feels a little familiar. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Her soft heart for the working stiff makes her a perfect candidate for the love of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack, a lamplighter who we’re told was once an apprentice of Dick Van Dyke’s character, Bert, from the 1964 film.

Sadly, although Miranda is a deft and effortless dancer, with a genial singing voice, there is little, if any, chemistry between him and Jane. And while affable enough, the creator and star of Hamilton has little screen presence. His cockney accent is a vocal misfire.

Michael is distraught because he misses his late wife. His grief has prevented him from keeping up with the mortgage payments on the house, which has fallen into foreclosure as the film opens, under the predations of a heartless banker played by Colin Firth. Strangely, Michael’s mood of gloom and doom pervades this family tale.

The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are serviceable, if less memorable, than the original songbook by the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard, who wrote such unforgettable earworms as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and Let’s Go Fly a Kite.

Into this musical miasma of fog and funk floats the title character (the excellent Emily Blunt, pitch-perfect as the punctilious-to-the-point-of-snarky Poppins) to set things right. 

Two hours later, after exhausting digressions, surreal side trips and interminable interludes that make the first film, at nearly 2½ hours, somehow feel shorter than this one, Mary’s mission is accomplished.

Some will approach the naked mechanics of Mary Poppins Returns more generously than others. Fond memories of the first film, and a childlike acceptance of the movie’s almost desperate need to be liked, can go a long way toward sweetening what left a bad taste in my mouth: its shameless sense of imitation and the all but joyless drumbeat of duty.

Where’s the spoonful of sugar, you may wonder, to help this medicine go down? 

Washington Post