By the standards of things that have absolutely no intrinsic reason to exist, Mary Poppins Returns sure is functional. It depicts 24 discrete still images per second and everything. The film is the long-awaited victory dance by the Walt Disney Company on the grave of P.L. Travers, who hated the studio's 1964 Mary Poppins, and had language put into her will that this exact movie could never be produced. What deal, exactly, Disney struck with her estate that makes this all legal, I cannot say, but it doesn't seem worth violating a dying woman's last request if all you're going to get out of it is milksoppy mediocrity like this. Mary Poppins Returns isn't "bad" - it isn't really much of anything. It's just something that exists and, like an increasing number of Disney-produced movies, wants to remind you of a better thing that has also existed.

The scenario starts at almost exactly the same place as fellow Class of 2018 Disney nostalgiathon Christopher Robin: an adorable child we remember from a beloved classic has grown up to become a very depressed adult and an emotionally unavailable father. In this case, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), some 25 years after having a tremendously fun and creative nanny for a few weeks back in 1910, has become an unspeakably morbid widower with three children, Anabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Never a good hand with money, Michael has become completely buried in debt following the costly medical treatment of his dead wife, and has been forced to take a job at the very same bank that his emotionally unavailable father used to be a partner. It's also the bank that has a usurious loan out on the Banks home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, and while Michael thinks that the new bank president William Wilkins (Colin Firth) is trying to help the family out in thanks for their longstanding association, in fact Wilkins is using his hatchetmen Gooding (Jeremy Swift) and Frye (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) to force out all the loan-holders who have been socked by the worldwide economic depression. You know, that kind of fun-for-the-whole-family stuff.

At any rate, Michael is sad, and his pointedly unmarried sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is only so capable of being a source of energy and optimism while she's busy doing work as a labor organsiser. With everything falling down around the family, and the children forced into mirthless miniature adulthood, it is the perfect time for the magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to - wait for it! - return.

And return she does, in a film that re-enacts all of the plot points of Mary Poppins in exactly the same order - the foreclosure subplot is literally the only difference between the two, and I suspect that it exists solely because the original movie had neither conflict nor a villain, and that was easier to sell in the 1960s than in the 2010s. Once again, Mary flim-flams the dad into hiring her as a nanny, and immediately goes up to perform a musical number about using imagination to make boring quotidian chores more fun - in this case, "Can You Imagine That?", about taking a bath, which is the second-closest thing this has to a memorable song, and the closest it has to a good one (the parallels to "A Spoonful of Sugar" go as far as this emerging as Mary's leitmotif). This is followed by a trip into an animated version of the English countryside populated by talking animals, culminating in a musical-hall style number ("A Cover Is Not the Book", which is the closest the film has to a memorable song, in part because of how jarring and weird it is). Then Mary ends the day by singing a lullaby. Then there's a comic, physics-defying visit one of Mary's odd relatives (played, in this case, by Meryl Streep, who has gone full-on into broad Slavic caricature). Then the children end up embarrassing their father at the bank. Then they meet Mary's good working-class buddy, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who leads all of his lamplighter colleagues in an elaborate song-and-dance number as he escorts them home. And then comes the third-act action sequence, because again, this is a 2010s children's film, and never to its benefit.

In principle, it is presumably possible for this to be good, even despite how utterly stale and overfamiliar it. In practice, it was doomed from the moment it was handed off to director Rob Marshall, last seen helping Disney transform Into the Woods into a thoroughly bland, drowsily safe bit of nothing. Considering that his career is almost entirely based in movie musicals, it's a bit shocking that Marshall still hasn't figured out how to make them. Mary Poppins Returns isn't his worst effort in that direction, of course, not while the no-singing, no-dancing sludge of Nine remains on his résumé. But it is awfully flat and bland, suffering as so many Marshall films have suffered from Dion Beebe cinematography that lacquers the film in unreasonably low lighting and a claustrophobically narrow range of colors. And, too, it suffers from Marshall's customary lead foot in staging musical sequences, which clomp along with one-note choreography and absolutely no sense of what to do with the camera (the big dancing lamplighters showstopper "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" is particularly ghastly in this regard; it was clearly choreographed for the perspective of a proscenium stage, and the camera is moved around watching the dancing with no sense of rhythm or any interesting angles). Given what a drab job this director made out of the movie adaptations of the sparkling Into the Woods and the masterful Chicago, it's not surprising that he's so helpless in the face of music as stubbornly unmemorable and trite as what Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have provided to Mary Poppins Returns; every song sounds kind of the same, and they're all indifferently uptempo.

Thus it is that the unhurried 130 minutes of the film's running time skip by without differentiating themselves or doing much of anything to offer interest. Whereas the first Mary Poppins had a cast stocked full of sharp, subtle performances by a lot of good character actors to add depth and humanity to the peppy sentiment, Returns assembles a lot of smudgy cartoons. Absolutely nobody in the supporting cast gets a personality, with the kids in particular coming across purely as plot points; Whishaw gets hung up on "mourning husband" and can't do anything with it, Mortimer's character makes no sense, and Miranda has nothing but a big empty smile to go along with his genial physicality. The film lives and dies on Blunt, far more even than the first movie bet everything on Julie Andrews's first-class film debut. Blunt, to her credit, is pretty great, inasmuch as the film allows her to be; the script this time around doesn't have a full handle on who Mary Poppins is, sometimes representing her as the vain, prim know-it-all of the first movie, sometimes allowing her to have the eager warmth that people misremember from the first movie. Blunt does both of these just fine, and she makes the critical choice not to engage in any sort of conversation with Andrews's performance; she is starting from the ground up, and despite at least one wholly bizarre choice (she's based her inexplicably posh accent on Princess Margaret, which is a pretty weird association to make when playing a nanny, even a magical one), she hits almost every target the film hands to her. The targets, alas, do not cohere into a single character, and the movie somewhat betrays all of Blunt's good work. Still, when she's onscreen the movie at least has some agreeable snark. When she is not - and the movie is not afraid to make her disappear for decent-length stretches - this is about as harmlessly, forgettably mediocre as these Disney rehashes can get. And since "harmless mediocre" is kind of the watchword for most of them, that's pretty damn forgettable indeed.