True to the spirit of the chipper, somewhat aimless live-action Disney day killers that inspired it, Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns gets better the further it wanders from its actual story. The plot concerns a greedy banker (Colin Firth), a missing deed and a potential foreclosure on the rambling London home of widower Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his kids. Would it surprise you to learn that keeping the house depends upon Michael getting the missing paperwork to the banker's desk before Big Ben tolls midnight? Or that the glum, overworked dad has to relearn everything he knew as a kid about the power of the imagination?
The filmmakers expel exhausting energy in their attempts to heat up such burnt-out chestnuts. The good news, though, is that they often set the story aside and invite us to hang out with the kids, a chip-chip lamplighter played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and, above all else, Emily Blunt's Mary Poppins. She's a crisply officious wonderment of a nanny who brooks no sass or silliness — and, when the adults aren't looking, magics up the place. Blunt's Poppins is no imitation of Julie Andrews. She has a chillier mien, and at the edges of some scenes, Blunt suggests a secret inner life.
The songs don't compare with "Do-Re-Mi" or "Chim Chim Cher-ee," but the leads invest them with consummate cheer, and Marshall keeps the focus on his stars. Other highlights include a whoopingly weird gravity-bender of a number performed by Meryl Streep, and a giddy third-act showstopper featuring dozens of lamplighter boys Newsie dancing and performing bicycle tricks. Those spoonfuls of sugar help the plotty, predictable lows go down.