Mary Poppins was once a character in a children’s series written by P.L. Travers, starting in 1934. Then, in 1964, she became the protagonist of the most successful Disney movie up to that point. Disney’s Mary Poppins made more than $100 million dollars (against a budget of just six million) and garnered an astounding 13 Oscar nominations, of which it won five, including one for star Julie Andrews. This made Andrews’ film career—she was immediately cast in another musical where she again played a nanny to children whose father is distracted by the concerns of adult life. The Sound of Music was also successful and won Andrews a second Oscar nomination.
Now, a Poppins sequel is in theaters. Mary Poppins Returns stars the beautiful Emily Blunt, whose performance is the best thing about the movie. Disney is certainly betting on a blockbuster—the studio reportedly spent $130 million on it, and that’s before advertising or marketing costs.
The British-American cast is also quite impressive: Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer play the all-grown-up versions of the Banks children whom Mary Poppins had graced with her presence in the original movie. Jane is now a labor organizer and philanthropist, Michael’s a widowed painter with three kids—they’ve recently lost their mother and are now in danger of losing their house to the very bank where Michael has taken a job to make ends meet.
Lin-Manuel Miranda fills the position Dick Van Dyke had in the original film, and he does a good job of it—he’s got all the Disney storytelling in song and dance down to an art. Colin Firth plays the smooth-talking but lupine banker threatening to take the house. Then there are cameos: Meryl Streep is in it, Julie Walters too, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke himself. You’ve got prestige, nostalgia, and everything in-between, in short.
But what purpose will it serve? In Disney’s hands, Mary Poppins turned from a rigorous nanny who gets kids to do as they ought, reminding them of their manners constantly, to a creature of pure fantasy. Propriety is gradually overwhelmed by sentimentality. Indeed, the movie encouraged the view that the way to deal with children is to appeal to fantasy. This, you could say, is Disney’s entire faith, business model, and therefore contribution to American entertainment.
The new Mary Poppins finds three kids who try their hardest to be self-sufficient, helpful to their bereaved father, and a comfort to each other, all while growing up in the midst of the Great Depression—and she immediately decides that they need to start fantasizing more feverishly. They have a deficit of credulity, apparently, and are trying too hard to act like civilized human beings. Instead, the solution to their heartbreak and other difficulties is more entertainment!
The climax of this insane idea is a song in which she tells them not to worry that their mother is dead, because she’s actually just in “the place where lost things go”—which is either a new Disney park, a non-religious idea of heaven, or just a pathetic attempt at playing with the feelings of the audience. So there is no surprise that their mother is actually completely forgotten halfway through the story, and that the only thing the kids had from her is dropped off for repairs, and never made mention of again. I’ve never seen something as foolishly cruel in a children’s movie.
The good parts of the movie are all about how not to be caught up in entertainment and fantasies—how to wake up to reality. When the fantasy is in service of opening people’s eyes to what’s in front of them, neglected, and reminding them of what good things they already have, it works well—there is love, friendship, and family in these scenes, and they could have amounted to great story about dealing with unhappiness and bereavement. But the ideology of fantasy fixing everything (which itself derives from a fear of admitting tragedy into our lives, even when our loved ones die) would have to be abandoned for that to be possible.
I, for one, think we’ll get better (and more memorable songs) when we have artists working on them who aren’t trying to lie to children about life and death, love and loss, and why we need each other in the first place.
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