It occurred to me about two weeks ago that I have no memory of seeing the original Mary Poppins. I know I saw some of it when I was a kid because I distinctly remember trying to spell out “Supercalifragilistickexpealidocious” and having the song stuck in my head.
But as for the story I didn’t remember a thing about it. So, I bought a copy of it and watched it with my wife and daughter last week because I knew, for some ineffable reason, that I wanted to see Mary Poppins Returns.
Most likely that came from my faith in Emily Blunt whose taste in projects is as impeccable as her performances. Or maybe it was something else, something I needed.
And watching Mary Poppins for the first time as the clock strikes down on my fiftieth year I was awed by how much it resonated still.
I found my mind wandering during the long musical sequences which didn’t feel germane to the story as much as they should have been.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it was a different age of film-making. The spectacle was part of the point. But because the story of Mary Poppins is so strong — Disney does know its archetypes after all — its length can be forgiven.
None of that occurs in the new film. This narrative is tight as a drum and the songs, sets, choreography and imagery all serve multiple purposes, propelling the story while deepening the meaning.
The 1964 Mary Poppins purports to be a story about saving the wayward Banks children. By the end it becomes a timeless story about parents who regain their balance and no longer need the assistance of Mary’s magic to find it in the world they live in.
Like all great films that say the right things in the right way, practically perfectly In Mary Poppins’ case, the biggest question is, “Why on earth would you make a sequel?”
That was the question I had going into the theater. With Disney intent on making live action versions of their animated classics simply because they can, a sequel to Mary Poppins looked like just another cynical bottom line filler for the Mouse House.
What purpose could this movie serve, other than as two hours of entertainment and cheap nostalgia?
I’m happy to say, plenty.
Order Breaks Down
Mary Poppins is a classic tale of the breakdown of traditional institutional order. The father, George Banks, in his myopia and need for order, has lost sight of why we, as men, go out and work to provide for our families.
Banks is a man who does only half of his job, that of procuring the means to provide his children a stable life. However, he’s so caught up in his own image of himself he abdicates his responsibility of actually raising them.
He’s lost in all of his demand for order. In short, he’s a poor leader because he’s become an incompetent father.
So, in comes Mary Poppins, an avatar of chaos in the form of an orderly nanny. She straightens things up quickly takes the kids on adventures, nurturing their spirit while giving them the opportunity to regain their connection with their father.
When the world of the children meets the world of the father at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank chaos ensues. A bank run occurs over a misunderstanding highlighting just how fragile the confidence in this orderly society truly is.
And George realizes the depth of his mistake to his family — putting his loyalty to the bank above them — and begins restoring order to his household. Through the magic of movie storytelling he is rewarded not only with his family’s love but also his old job back.
I had to retell you that story to tell you why the story in Mary Poppins Returns works so well. We move the story forward a generation. We pick up Jane and Michael Banks as adults during the “Great Slump” of the 1930’s, a time of complete societal breakdown.
While George’s story ends on a happy note of him becoming a father again to his children, Michael’s story starts off much more dire. He’s an artist during the depression making ends not meet working at his father’s bank as a teller.
He hasn’t had a moment’s peace to properly grieve for his dead wife.
The world of Mary Poppins Returns is that the next phase of the cycle. The fragility of the 1910’s has become an abyss in the 1930’s. George’s bank has become a thieving den of unquenchable greed, a state foreshadowed in the first film.
Now, wolves like Colin Firth’s Mr. Wilkins preside over them caring little for the customers. They only care for what they can steal for themselves. The bank went from an essential pillar of society’s growth to the engine of its destruction.
Heady stuff for a children’s flick. And a perfect reflection of where we are today.
And Michael, in his despair, took out a loan against the house while he tried to right himself. He’s misplaced his father’s stock certificates as well as some other investments. He simply isn’t capable of performing his role as father to his three children.
He has been reduced to a cypher to be taken care of by his children who now shoulder his responsibilities. Children become the parents. The sister, Emily, is supportive but no replacement for Michael’s wife.
This is the very definition of chaos. Michael is in the worst kind of hell.
The house is falling into disrepair and all Michael can do is remain lost in his own troubles, meaning well but failing. Bitter and alone he lashes out as he tries to hold onto what little he has left.
And the plot revolves around finding those shares before time runs out and the home repossessed by the bank.
Personally, I’ve lived Michael’s story, it’s a terrible place to be. No man should have to go through that but too many of us do.
So, Mary Poppins returns to help the next generation of Banks children rescue their father from his terrible state. Blunt’s Mary is decidedly different and Andrews’ Mary.
This one is at once harsher and more vain. But time was taken by director Rob Marshall to show Mary in private moments. We see that her public persona is one she has to put on to do the job she came to do.
And does it in style she does, with a wit and slyness that wasn’t in the original. Different Marys for different stories.
Emily Blunt is, in a word, magical. And she elevates everyone around her filling each line of dialogue with layers of meaning and character in equal measure.
I could watch Blunt play Mary Poppins all day. Truly, this is a career-defining role for her. Blunt’s performance here reminds me of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey or, perversely, Heath Ledger’s Joker or Julie Andrews Mary Poppins.
It’s simply that level of performance, one that will follow the performer around forever. Certain characters have that power.
There’s Something About Mary
Mary Poppins is a rare creature in film. She is the positive embodiment of the chaotic and creative female archetype, which usually manifests as the negative version — the old crone or the devouring mother — in these stories.
Here she is that spark of imagination that push us to find solutions which our anxieties blind us to, but which are staring us directly in the face.
If we’d only look up.
And Mary Poppins Returns understands this at a visceral level.
This film was a joy to watch from the moment it started to its final frame. To see an honest, old-fashioned, un-ironic tale of redemption and wonder during these times of societal breakdown was exactly what was needed for this Christmas season.
Artists tend to know, unconsciously, where we are as a culture. Without a doubt the shepherds of Mary Poppins Returns understood this while putting this film together.
It’s not perfect, there are some flat moments, a mis-step or two, not in the choreography, mind you which is superb, but in the climax, which I won’t spoil.
Mary Poppins never says what she’s actually thinking or attempting to do. So, there’s a moment at the end which betrays that but it’s not enough to undermine the film’s power.
But this is a film which understood, like Mary, what we needed when we needed it and it doesn’t bare a hint of the cynicism it could have had.
There’s also a real sense Disney saw this movie as an opportunity, like with Star Wars, to pass the baton off to the new generation of performers. Cameos by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury don’t come off as gratuitous but rather generous to their contributions to film and story-telling history.
There was real intent and purpose in bringing back Mary Poppins for a generation struggling with which direction it wants to go, which path to take. Mary doesn’t come back to solve our problems, simply illuminate them and provide the light by which to find our way back to ourselves.
And what a light she is.