Directed by: Rob Marshall Written by: David Magee Music by: Marc Shaiman
“The cover is not the book” sing Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) in Disney’s latest release. For me there was a pleasant irony to this Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious-esque number: this was a film I’d nearly dismissed due to its trailer.
Let me explain. The trailer I saw for the film seemed to present is at the story of a disillusioned Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) who has become a serious and strict father. This prompts Mary Poppins to return to his life and reteach him the lesson he learned as a child in the original Mary Poppins film. This was the premise of an earlier 2018 release, Christopher Robin, and that film thoroughly irked me. Christopher Robin treated its protagonist as essentially a shell with a brand name. This new Christopher Robin seemed entirely unshaped by his childhood relationship with Winnie the Pooh, and instead embodied a generic maturity allowing him to learn a generic lesson over the course of the film.
Mary Poppins Returns almost tells that same story: but not quite. On the one hand the film is undoubtedly a product of Disney’s current remake era. In many ways it is not a novel film concept, bot a high-tech remake of the original movie. Like the original film it pits kids, Mary and Jack (a character who is Bert in all but name) against the worlds of adulthood and banking. The film’s songs too feel like they were designed to be equivalents of tunes in the original (“Imagine That” is “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Turning Turtle” is “I Love to Laugh” and so on).
But much like Incredibles 2, Mary Poppins Returns shows that a sequel can be enjoyable, regardless of how “original it is” so long as it is made with heart. This heart rings out in the opening scene where Jack cycles through the Mary Poppins set singing “Lovely London Sky,” a moment that evokes the mood of returning to a school/community/etc. after a time off and taking in the familiar faces and places. More importantly, the commitment of the writers to coming out with a genuinely good script is made plain in their depiction of Michael Banks. The adult Michael may have much in common with the adult Christopher Robin, but unlike the other characters, he genuinely appears to be a mature version of his previous iteration and not a generic-overworked-father-figure. Michael, in this story, does not simply have a generic office/bank job. Rather, he has such a job to support his true career as an artist. This allows for nuance in his relationship with his children. He is not a grownup who has forgotten how to be friendly and have fun: instead he’s someone whose experience with adulthood has simply pressured him in the direction of forgetting how to be friendly and have fun.
Mary Poppins is a uniquely contradictory figure: she speaks of proprietary, manners and sensibility, all the while showing the children she cares for her nonsensical world. In Mary Poppins Returns, this personality is made to fit into a broader dualistic worldview. Through characters like Bert and Jack the Mary Poppins series on the one hand can be said to be telling the working class to be happy with their lot in life: just like these jolly figures. Yet Mary Poppins returns, through its presentation of Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) as a union organizer makes clear that it does not have this reactionary intent. Instead what it is saying is that one should both push for a better world, but before one has it, one should also use one’s imagination to find beauty. This worldview is also expressed in the film’s relationship to the imaginary. Michael and Jane are convinced that the more magical parts of their Mary Poppins memories (yes, their shared memories) are fabricated, a view that they absurdly hold onto when Mary Poppins returns into their lives. Yet this approach to the imaginary is a useful, if not entirely accurate representation of actual human existence. Children, for instance, can get deeply into playing pretend games while still knowing their games are make believe. The film implies that adults can have a similar worldview: engaging maturely with the world should not preclude one from having an imagination.
Perhaps some will find fault in Mary Poppins Returns not bringing forward enough novel material. In terms of the film’s actual content, however, there’s little to complain about. It brings forward all one could expect in song-and-dance pizazz and use of traditional and modern animation technique. So don’t be put off by any bad trailer you may have seen. I promise, the trailer is not the film.