In December 2018 I strolled into an evening showing of a movie I had formerly committed to avoid as seriously as I do tailgates or seafood restaurants: Mary Poppins Returns, a film which, even before I say anything else, I think everyone can agree never actually needed to be made.
I did, I think it’s worth saying, ultimately choose to go see it of my own free will, and by myself. But I did not go because I wanted to experience magic or wonder or “remember what it was like to be a kid again” (which is often the suggestion that Disney proposes its theme parks and films, including this one, will fulfill) but because, of all of the movies I have ever seen in my life, the original 1964 Mary Poppins, directed by Robert Stevenson, remains one of the most important to me. When I was five, our videocassette copy, which I had watched so many times, actually broke our VCR—the video got jammed inside during a rewinding attempt. My parents could not replace the machine right away, so I would check out the VHS copy from our local Queens Public Library branch and stare at the back cover instead.
I loved the music, and the special effects, and the dancing. I loved Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn), levitating from the natural buoyancy of his laughter. I loved Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen), the old naval officer who has turned the roof of his home into the deck of a ship. I loved stiff Constable Jones (Arthur Treacher) who barely gets a word in edgewise. I loved the animated penguins and the Scottish fox, and the chimney sweep ensemble. I loved Julie Andrews and her perfect singing voice. I loved Dick Van Dyke and his high-kicking matchstick legs.
But I was fascinated with it, too, because it made a series of arguments I had never before encountered in a movie. Indeed, true to the Disney message, it emphasizes that the wonders of life can be most easily seen by children and forgotten by adults. But this is not Peter Pan. In Mary Poppins, the plucky liberator of grown-up anxieties and stuffiness is not an eternal child, but an eternal adult. And rather than condemn adulthood outright, Mary Poppins locates magic that only adults are ultimately able to do, and do for children.
It may seem, already, that I’m too attached to Mary Poppins to objectively evaluate its decades-later studio sequel. I am. That’s fair. But to be clear, I’m not here to review or (realistically) excoriate Mary Poppins Returns, a nice movie that I don’t think anyone really had high hopes for and which will, with any luck, never be remembered. I’m here to talk about Mary Poppins Returns in the context of the groundbreaking and complex thematic nuances of Mary Poppins in hopes that the original Mary Poppins will never be forgotten.
Mary Poppins is the story of a family, the Banks family, who live in a stately London townhouse during the late Edwardian era. Mr. George Banks (David Tomlinson) is a banker interested in little else besides maintaining his punctual personal empire. Mrs. Winnifred Banks (Glynis Johns) is a suffragette whose daily concerns are about the political future of women. The children, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice, and the late Matthew Garber), are adventurous and ebullient, and their sweetly misbehaving antics have summoned a veritable carousel of disgruntled, short-lived nannies. After the surly Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester, formerly the Bride of Frankenstein) quits, upon losing the children in a park on a windy day as they attempt to chase a fugitive kite, the Banks parents advertise for a stern, “general” of a nanny who believes in “tradition, discipline, and rules.” Blowing the competition away (literally) is Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews, in an Oscar-winning performance), a poised and unfazed professional who floats out of the sky and lands on their doorstep. She, and her jocular factotum friend Burt (Dick Van Dyke), soon take the children on several spectacular adventures, to the delight of Jane and Michael and the consternation of their father.
As I have said, a foundational takeaway for Mary Poppins is that it emphasizes the wonder and imagination that comes with childhood. But also, most of the film’s wonderful animated sequences and musical interludes (the “Spoonful of Sugar” and cleaning up the nursery scene, the adventure inside the “chalk pavement picture,” and the outing at the giggly Uncle Albert’s) are clever and whimsical buildups to the film’s much graver thesis.
In its third act, at Mary Poppins’s suggestion, Mr. Banks takes his children to his workplace, the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, and tries to convince little Michael to open an account with his two pennies—two pennies that Michael would rather give to the old woman who sits on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, feeding the birds who gather there (Academy-Award winning actress Jane Darwell, in her final role). Mr. Banks insists that Michael’s investment of the tuppence will add to a chugging universe of finance and progress, and the bankers sing about how far his money will go. He’ll contribute to: “Railways through Africa/ Dams across the Nile/ fleets of ocean Greyhounds/ Majestic, self-amortizing canals/ Plantations of ripening tea.” The Senior Banker, the Elder Mr. Dawes (played by Dick Van Dyke, under lots of makeup and with a slapsticky stoop), leads the bankers in shouting at Michael, this time more frantically, “You can purchase first and second trust deeds! Think of the foreclosures! Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares! Bankruptcies! Debtor sales! Opportunities! All manner of private enterprise! Shipyards! The mercantile! Collieries! Tanneries! Incorporations! Amalgamations! Banks!” The song clarifies a previously suspected theme—that the heart of the conflict between Michael and the bankers is not simply adult greed versus a child’s kindness, but the idea that money should be used to lift up strangers, rather than circulate through regimes which will oppress others.
In this darkest of the film’s acts (despite its inclusion of Mary Poppins’s most impressive and joyous number, the long chimney sweep ensemble dance “Step in Time”), Mary Poppins, in telling Mr. Banks to take his children to work, has offered a critical intervention so a father can fully understand the world he is alternately building and not building for his children, and the cold existences he leaves them to build on their own without providing them with personal care—which will rob him, as Burt later tells him, of the joy of raising them at all.
Mary Poppins is hardly oblique about the fact that raising children is real work. It insists that, while it is a job, child rearing allows for the incorporation of the natural happiness of children to inform a new way to, in fact, execute that labor. It is a film that stresses the importance of being happy while you work (“in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun”), but not to celebrate an exploitive employment system. The film is packed full of chores, caregiving, domestic work, suffrage, manual labor, performance, art creation, and charity. And imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. It is about possession and greed without self-awareness. Is is about making low-class labor, especially in upper-class neighborhoods, visible, important, and beautiful. It is about an industrial moment in the history of the city of London—the film’s most beautiful and impressive shot is a glimpse, from a rooftop, of how the city looks at sundown, filled with people of all classes turning on and off the electric lights in their homes, as they come home from their jobs, or go to bed. Burt tells the children that this gorgeous landscape is the realm of the chimney sweeps. Instead of ignoring the question of labor, Mary Poppins stresses the equal value of all work, and appreciates the individuals behind the work— collapsing, for a moment, a national class structure that has historically tied virtuousness to wealth. (And certainly, supporting this shrinking of social hierarchies is the casting of the same actor to play the film’s wealthiest character, the Elder Mr. Dawes, “a giant in the world of finance,” as its least, the jack-of-all-trades Burt.)
So, the children run away from the bank (run away from a traditional representation of success) after Mr. Dawes snatches the tuppence out of Michael’s cupped hand, a symbolic act of thievery for the sake of British acquisition. Michael yanks it back, screaming for the banker to give him back his money—cries which echo through the halls and cause patrons to request full withdrawals of their holdings. As they flee, they cause a run on the bank, the likes of which has apparently not been seen since 1773. We find out later that Mr. Banks has been summoned to the bank that evening, to be dishonorably discharged, as a result.
This act’s patron saint, the Bird Woman, is a mythical, even religious figure—a line in the film’s most haunting song, “Feed the Birds,” sung by Mary Poppins to the children on the eve of their fateful outing, goes: “All around the cathedral/ the Saints and Apostles/ look down as she sells her wares/ Although you can’t see it/ you know they are smiling/ each time someone shows that he cares.” This suddenly-Christian imagery suggests a governing moral fabric, rather than the film’s more obviously capitalistic one, one which appreciates even the littlest acts of generosity. The few scenes of the Bird Woman, also, are slow in pacing and musical accompaniment—a respite from the busy, bustling world of commerce a few short paces from the Cathedral steps. “Though her words are simple and few,” Mary Poppins sings, “Listen, listen, she’s calling to you.” In her small way, the Bird Woman merely offers a gentle, thoughtful pause from the daily grind of London, but her symbolism, as one who voluntarily lives on next to nothing to foster a culture of sharing, is enough to rupture the financial sphere of London, and, apparently, threaten the empire (“When fall the banks of England,” explains says the Elder Mr. Dawes, flailing backwards, “England falls.”)
Mr. Banks himself is not greedy or bad—he is enthusiastic but shortsighted, and, as Burt explains to the kids, he is stuck inside a cage of his own devising, one which (to use a different vocabulary) propels an imperialistic view of progress. His company looks to other lands for investment, and he, like “most people” “can’t see past the end of [his] nose.” But his children (particularly Michael, who, at the end of this bad day, gives his father his tuppence, an act motivated by pure love) show him how to discover how naïve and selfish he has been—and, while he is being discharged, he begins to tell jokes, sing, and laugh, ultimately giving the tuppence to the head banker, the Elder Mr. Dawes, in an act of generosity, which symbolizes that Mr. Banks is no longer trapped by this austere machine.
Mary Poppins Returns picks up on a few of its predecessor’s more obvious themes, especially the ones about the ephemeralness of childhood and, for example, the inherent unselfishness of laughter. It is a cheerfully necromantic adaptation—a ballooning, cotton-candy-colored and lamplight-filled reanimated boneyard of Mary Poppins’s greatest moments and basic plot points; all the while a nice reminder that bringing something back to life can never result in a sincere, complete, just-as-it-was resurrection. The materiality and obvious lessons of Mary Poppins are in many ways present and prettily preserved fifty-four years later in this sequel, but the sequel itself is proof that the actual soul of Mary Poppins is lost to us forever.
The film, in its nice but strenuous pastiche, picks up a few decades (maybe two and a half?) after the original. Jane and Michael are now all grown up. They still live at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Their parents are dead, as is, I guess, their brash Cook (Reta Shaw). But Ellen the complaining housekeeper (originally played by Hermione Baddley and now skillfully played to similar cadence and groans by Julie Walters) is there, as are Admiral Boom (now played sentimentally by David Warner) and his first mate, Mr. Binnacle (originally played by former Keystone cop Don Barclay, and now played by Jim Norton), and their neighbor Miss Loch (who somehow looks younger than she did twenty years ago, idk). Mary Poppins Returns loves that it remembers these ancillary characters, and lets you know how proud of itself it is by inordinately focusing on them and what they mean to the neighborhood.
Michael (Ben Wishaw) is a recent widower with three spunky children: John, Anabel, and Georgie. The film wastes no time telling you how “grown up” the kids have had to become since the loss of their mother. Jane (Emily Mortimer, perfectly cast) has a nearby flat, and she is a labor organizer and works for homeless relief. (To Hollywood, nothing shortcuts character development like men having dead wives and women helping the less fortunate.)
Following this family tragedy, their family home is about to be repossessed by the bank (the very bank their father worked for, and the bank Michael works for now as a clerk). The siblings believe that they have a stock certificate somewhere, left to them from their father, that can save their home, but they can’t find it. They have a week to locate the document. The older two kids are determined to pitch in and do more chores to help, but the littlest one, Georgie, just wants to fly his kite (the very kite that caused so much trouble to his father and aunt on a similarly windy date). He sneaks away to do this on a shopping trip, and the kite catches a gust of wind and nearly yanks him into the atmosphere. His siblings have to help pull him back. And guess who is hanging onto the other end of the kite as they tug it out of the sky? (This is, by the way, how Mary Poppins returns in P.L. Travers’s sequel Mary Poppins Comes Back.)
Mary Poppins (a dedicated and game Emily Blunt), is here to help the family in this time of crisis. It’s unclear how she’s going to help with these hard deadlines and mortgage problems, but she’s here anyway. Jane and Michael are stupefied to see her again (apparently not having aged a day), but are quick to write off their memories of her magic as childish exaggerations, even though she literally does magic all around them now. Shame. So, Mary Poppins wastes no time taking the children off on a bunch of adventures, joined by a cockney lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who is evidently Burt’s protégé and who has a crush on Jane (Burt’s out of town, he hastens to say).
But with all this nostalgia, it’s a shock when Mary Poppins Returns so seriously ignores the gravitas of its predecessor’s climax and denouement. It doesn’t just forget that Mary Poppins is dark, but attempts to manufacture its own darkness—doing so in overwrought and all-too-modern manners. Mary Poppins Returns features a ticking deadline that propels its action (which inevitably results in a race to the top of Big Ben to turn back the clock hands), but it also has a villain: an evil banker named Wilkins (Colin Firth) who pretends to be kind but is conniving to evict the family from their home so he can possess it. He has no discernable motivation and no development, and exists solely to provide conflict and stakes. He even creeps into one of the animated fantasy sequences as a cartoon wolf to wreak havoc on it. (This part barely makes sense—his presence in this sequence seems possible if this scene has been a dream, but the film dwells on this question for a while, with the hard-boiled kids locating evidence that all that magical stuff did really happen. So how does he get in there?)
This addition of a clear-cut villain is the saddest thing about Mary Poppins Returns. It misunderstands the very nature of “conflict” as defined by its ancestor. I remember telling my mother as a child that Mary Poppins was the first movie I saw with no bad guy, just “a problem.” This is an entirely remarkable feature, especially for a film marketed towards children—that the central predicament not be grandiose and cartoonish, but staid, domestic, and representative of a moral gray area. And this also allows its heroine, Mary Poppins herself, to help solve it; what is she if not a social worker, helping a family come together in many important ways?
Mary Poppins, in Mary Poppins Returns, is able to help with few of the family’s problems, which are mostly financial (namely by providing free childcare to a family that cannot afford to pay for it)—but there is absolutely no way she can tackle this film’s new vaudevillian bad guy. And this renders her magic particularly powerless, and even suggests that her magic is out of place in a depressed modern era, belonging to a time of apparently antique and simpler social problems.
Then comes the film’s deus ex machina—the Younger Mr. Dawes, who, along with his father, had fired Mr. Banks in the original film. He’s still alive (played by Dick Van Dyke, now closely resembling his previous Dawes family character), and he wanders into the bank to “catch” Wilkins in his conspiracy and save the Banks family. Worse still is that Mr. Dawes Junior tells Michael that his family is being saved by the tuppence—the very tuppence that Michael had wanted to use to feed the birds, which he once gave to his father as a gesture of love, and which Mr. Banks then shoved, amid spontaneous joke-telling, at Mr. Dawes Senior during his dismissal, as a gesture of generosity towards an unfortunate and hard-hearted old man. (This motion, by the way, then saves the soul of Mr. Dawes Senior, as well as changes the Bank’s entire perspective on George Banks, his family, and generosity and fun). Mr. Dawes Junior tells grown-up Michael that the bank invested the tuppence after all and, through investment, they turned it into lots of money, so the family can use that to save their home.
It’s tragic that to Mary Poppins Returns, both conflict and salvation have to arise from external and material circumstances—and through this, that the dominion of capitalism, which Mary Poppins works carefully to undermine in many areas, has triumphed, to the joyous and grateful admiration of all. High-stakes action, rigid artificial deadlines, the acquisition of lots of money without having earned it in any way, and the presence of a bad guy are seen as the necessary motivators of narrative, but also somehow happy family life. And something akin to this general mindset is, of course, the very thing that nearly sinks the Banks family in the first place back in 1910.
But in Mary Poppins, money is shown to be meaningless in a manner far sincerer than any film which hashes this argument. Parents are given the opportunity to become heroes, and they don’t need to stand next to bad guys to do so. All workers are represented as valuable for their skills. Unhappiness is shown to arise from familial dismissal and neglect and obsession with acquisition, not the sinister machinations of a dastardly outsider. And children are shown as worthy of love and care without financial incentive, as requiring work paid back for in love.
It is a film which stresses the importance of giving of yourself to the world, in labor, effort, kindness, generosity, humor, creativity, and the taking care of and loving of entities that aren’t even specifically yours. It is a movie which does not fixate on the problematic absence of magic in childhood, but anticipates the serious want for magic in adulthood (for an essay which concentrates on this particular theme, see Shane Cashman’s recent article in the BLARB). Mary Poppins is, in so many of its plots, about working hard to build a collaborative, happy future for the generations to come, one which pushes back against many oppressive governing establishments (as Mrs. Banks sings, in her song “Sister Suffragette”: “our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus”). So I have written this piece out love for Mary Poppins, but also out of sheer panic that this marvelous film and its recent sequel will run together somehow in the minds of future or current generations, and I’m desperate for them not to. I know (from Twitter) that many agree. Let us instead, please, hold on to Mary Poppins—to paraphrase for a bit, let us hold tight, as if to the string of a kite.