Mary Poppins Returns
Rob Marshall (2018)
And now for the sequel 54 years in the making. Disney’s new Mary Poppins Returns strives to capture, and sometimes succeeds in replicating, the charm and wonder of the original production, after generations of children have been raised and tickled by the original production. It’s not that Disney set the film aside for half a century and then suddenly decided maybe there ought to be a follow-up after all. Disney wanted to create a sequel a year after the original film’s release, but P.L. Travers, author of the series of children’s novels on which the film was based, rejected the proposal. As the film approached its silver anniversary in the late 1980s, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg contacted the elderly Travers again, proposing a new film to be set a generation later than the original, with the Banks children now grown and an older Mary Poppins, played by an older Julie Andrews, returning. Travers once more boycotted the idea, disliking everything except the promise of Julie Andrews reprising the role. The idea of a sequel was swept away into oblivion for another 25 years. Then in 2015, at about the time of the film’s golden anniversary, Disney approached Rob Marshall (the Oscar-nominated director of Chicago), who had just directed Into the Woods for the company, with the idea of a new Poppins. This time with the go-ahead from Travers’ estate, the company began work on the new film, hiring David Magee (author of such fantasy screenplays as Life of Pi and Finding Neverland) to do the script, to be based on the remaining seven novels in Travers’ book series. And thus the whirligig of time brings his sequels.
Just how much of the new film is based on the subsequent Mary Poppins novels is hard to see, even for those familiar with the books. This film is set a quarter of a century after the events of the Julie Andrews film, in 1935, in the depths of what the film calls the “Great Slump”—i.e., the Great Depression. None of Travers’ novels jump ahead a generation like this. Grown up Michael Banks has three children, two of whom—John and Annabel—have the names of the two younger Banks children in the novels. In the second book in the series, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary reappears holding on to a paper kite, a little trick recreated in the new film. The children have an upside-down tea party with Mary’s cousin Topsy, who appears in the new film played by Meryl Streep, and they meet a balloon lady in the park selling magical balloons—a character who also comes into the film in the person of Angela Lansbury. This second book also contains a scene in which Mary and the children have an adventure inside of a Royal Daulton bowl, which provides a long animated sequence in the new film. From the third book in the series, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the new film takes Mary’s ominous warning—that she will “stay until the door opens.” That book also includes a scene in which the children attend an underwater garden party—a scene that inspires an early sequence in the movie. As for the other five Poppins novels, there is really nothing in particular in them that seems to have influenced the plot of Mary Poppins Returns.
The central conflict of the new film seems inspired more by the movie’s historical setting than by anything in Travers’ series. For the Banks children from the first film, Michael (Ben Winshaw of TV’s The Hollow Crown and A Very English Scandal) and Jane (a charming Emily Mortimer of TV’s The Newsroom), are now grown up, and they face a Great Depression both financial and emotional. Michael’s wife has recently died, leaving him with three small children and a heartache hangover that render him ill-prepared to take on the financial burdens of the current hard times. He’s abandoned his budding artistic career and taken a job as a teller in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where his father used to work, while Jane, who works as a labor organizer in Depression-era London, helps to take care of the three kids, George (Joel Dawson), Anabel (Pixie Davis) and John (Nathanael Saleh). The potential crisis is revealed early in the movie: Michael has taken out a loan from the bank, but after his wife’s death he’s forgotten to make payments on the loan, and now the ruthless bank, manager William Weatherall Wilkins (Oscar winner Colin Firth of The King’s Speech), demands payment in full or the bank will repossess the Banks family home, where Michael still lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The only hope is to produce the certificate proving ownership of the shares their father owned in the bank, but nobody remembers what might have happened to it.
Into this mishegas drops Mary Poppins (the practically perfect Emily Blunt, who, like Streep, worked with Marshall in Into the Woods), holding on to the tail of George’s kite. She doesn’t seem to concern herself with Michael’s immediate financial problems, but at least she takes he kids off his hands, leading them about on various adventures with the assistance of her old friend, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the phenomenal Broadway smash Hamilton). Jack is a London lamplighter, and his role is essentially to echo Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweeper Bert from the original film.
That original film, in fact, provides the arc of the story of Mary Poppins Returns far more obviously than do the plots of any of Travers’ subsequent books. Virtually every scene of the new film recalls or echoes some scene from the old. The visit with Meryl Streep’s character channels Mary and Bert’s visit to Ed Wynn in the earlier movie. Angela Lansbury’s balloon lady scene is essentially a recreation of the kite-flying scene at the end of the first film. Jack has a song-and-dance number with his fellow lamplighters that emulates Van Dyke’s “Step In Time” number from the original story. And there’s a Supercalifragilisticexpialidociousnumber in which Blunt and Miranda cavort with Cockney-speaking animated characters that is a clear tribute to Andrews and Van Dyke’s jolly holiday in the previous film. And on and on. Though the stakes in this new film are higher than in the first, you can rest assured that in the end, Mary Poppins will prevail, and prove to her charges, both current and former, that everything is possible, even the impossible.
In two particular aspects the current film transcends and improves upon the original. The portrayal of Bert and his fellow chimney sweeps as happy, dancing chaps, as if the profession was one that inspired in its practitioners a lot of carefree, fun larks, has always been a serious misrepresentation of a class of men and boys who had the worst job in society, and one that ruined their health and led to an early grave—a fact William Blake recognized two hundred years ago when he wrote of “How the chimney sweeper’s cry/Every blackening church appalls.” Presenting them this way was like depicting happy, contented slaves in Gone With the Wind. Scrapping the chimney sweepers and replacing them with lamplighters is certainly an improvement. The other unacceptable cultural depiction in the original film was the way Mrs. Banks’ zealous support of the cause of women’s suffrage was ridiculed and made to seem a silly interest which she abandons—tossing her “Votes for Women” banner into the trash—when she realizes she should be more devoted to her husband and children at the end of the movie. In the current film, her daughter Jane has inherited her zeal for social causes, but her work as a labor organizer in the Depression is never denigrated as frivolous.
The film’s admirable qualities go much farther than this: It is hard to imagine anyone currently on the scene who could have been a better choice than Emily Blunt to play Mary Poppins. She has just the right combination of primness and sass to pull it off. And as for Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is the current paragon of Broadway-style song and dance excellence, and he brings those qualities to each of his numbers in this film. And yes, it’s no spoiler (since the word has been spreading everywhere) to mention that the 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke does make a cameo appearance in the film in which he dazzles the audience with his own still considerable song-and-dance moves. That scene is well worth the price of admission.
But once the film was over, I personally felt a bit of a letdown. The music, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is appealing and reminiscent of sound tracks of the ’60s, but the fact is there isn’t a truly memorable song in the film. Even the best numbers in the show—Miranda’s “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” or the music-hall number “A Cover Is Not the Book”—are really mere pale imitations of the Sherman brothers’ Oscar-winning music from the first film. The musical numbers, and to a largeextent the entire film, are derivative, and the movie in the end stands as a kind of tribute to, more than an expansion of, the originalMary Poppins. Three Tennysons for this one.