Mary Poppins – vibrant, mawkish, both the sugar and the medicine – might be called art. It is a Better Homes & Gardens magazine accelerated to a fairytale; it has moments that inspire kite-flying and dancing and pigeon satiation. Mary Poppins Returns is the same film presented more aggressively, presumptuously called a sequel, and differing in almost no respect except a kind of distant longing on the part of the audience to stop accelerating already. Whatever it was, it still is – you could do much worse for the Christmas season, where want is keenly felt and Disney rejoices. But whatever it was, this is the pop art version.
Dick Van Dyke had a heartful badness in Mary Poppins, a kind of cultural ignorance that can only come from someone performing their idea of another place as a child plays pretend in magical lands. Britain was a magical land, in Mary Poppins. It had the appearance of a set and the texture of a World’s Fair; it contained the cruelty of its era, the power struggles, the champing man-ness and womanly puffery, and yet it put them in line with a dose of pure, well-meaning silliness. It found the charity in them.
Lin-Manuel Miranda playing the wily lamplighter called Jack is a flattened-out version of Van Dyke to match the flattening of the era. Miranda is a big Broadway star, an entrepreneur who enters this project with the air of a cover artist riffing on an old tune. He represents Van Dyke’s Bert in the way that Andy Warhol painted Marilyn Monroe: to be resold to people that recognize the image. He’s a talented guy buried under mystique (and a cockney accent). An overlong number called “A Cover is Not the Book” threatens to make his entire career look tacky: it takes his signature pop-rap and plants it in a cabaret allusion to procreation (director Neill Marshall reminds us of his Chicago here, more than of Julie Andrews). When Mary Poppins pops out on stage in stockings and Mia Wallace hair I was reminded of some Mary Poppins-themed miniskirt ensembles I saw in a shop window in Disney Springs. I’m fairly certain Andrews’ version would have scoffed at the scanty jollity of this number in particular. Though I don't suppose it matters to most people at this point, I’m absolutely positive that author P.L. Travers would have wept from sadness (as she did, after all, at the premiere of Mary Poppins).
Emily Blunt, if she can be most credited as one thing particularly, might be credited as being blameless. Her version of Mary Poppins seems to work because Mary Poppins allows her to; the character herself seems to absolve the sequel of its failings in exchange for making a good time of it. Blunt attacks this character, as she must, with the confidence of someone who deserves her – a lullaby is a particularly touching scene, which could only have been enacted by someone faking Mary to make her. But she doesn’t have Andrews’ sly wit (remember the wilted daisies in Mary Poppins' hat, hilariously cheery against her prim demeanor? If they had put them on Blunt, no one would have gotten the joke). The new Mary seems much less reluctant to show off -- this time she’s trying to convince the goofy relative (here played superficially by Meryl Streep) to sing on the ceiling, rather than insisting that they stop this silliness at once and so on (it results in "Turning Turtle," one of the worst songs I've ever heard in a musical). And yet, even if she's more reluctant to show off, she's still less effervescent when she goes about it (I couldn't help thinking about the reflection of Mary singing an impromptu opera cadenza in the original, which she called “cheeky" to herself, when she’s strutting through a cabaret singing playfully about sex in Mary Poppins Returns).
Such comparisons are unfair because there is no Andrews today. And besides, one would hardly fit into the Depression-era 30s in which the sequel takes place, as opposed to the vibrant nineteen-teens for which she was made, and fits as handsomely as a well-pressed parasol. But it is as unfair as it is unavoidable since it reveals another problem, which is the one that turns Mary Poppins Returns from a well-meaning diversion to a slog: the film doesn’t have the right texture.
I’m not talking about in its accuracy to the original film but in its ability to transport people to other places and allow them to feel like they’re on their own jawly ‘oliday. Mary Poppins Returns renders a realistic London – the film opens with a computer-operated camera movement down through the buildings, through the steam, to the streets – but it doesn’t have the same “being there” as other grand movie vacations. Recently, Paddington 2 provided the perfect getaway: a London that felt tactile, with swathes of primary color and clever, Wes Anderson-like frames to break up the seriousness of adventure with the candid excitement of a doll’s house. Mary Poppins had that: it took place in the kind of London that a child might invent for their little dollies, for whom they might speak all the voices in a way that I don’t doubt would be a spot-on impression of Dick Van Dyke. Nothing that happened in that movie ever really had another motive besides making people feel good.
By contrast, there’s a sequence near the end of Mary Poppins Returns in which the grown-up Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) have to rush to the bank before closing time with the proof of their father’s shareholding interest in the company so that their house doesn’t get foreclosed. Not only is that a decidedly unmagical setup, but the whole sequence is played completely straight, as the children pitch in to delay the bad guy long enough to get there in time. This Mary doesn’t see the problem with an action scene, nor the irony in the squabbling of mortals over matters of money when they live in a fairyland with beautiful children and an endless supply of grassy lawns. The music is dramatic and action-packed; the effects strain to keep up. At one point, Michael says to Jane after realizing how to break into the bank, “Jane … let’s go fly a kite.” Is there anything less jawly than that? The line gave me pangs of post-Force Awakens stress disorder.
What's really so important about all this? It's about the limits of this particular universe, and how little the sequel understands them. The original Mary Poppins universe had no room for villainy: its closest approximation was misguided well-meaningness. It was a world in which you wondered how the Banks had children, if no one in the universe, as it seemed at the time, had ever had sex. Action scenes like the one that closes Mary Poppins Returns are as out of place as villains like the money-grubbing bank chairman who wants to foreclose the Banks house and steal the family jewels (miscast as Colin Firth into perhaps the least believably dogged of all cinema’s industrial villains: compared to the scrumptiousness of Hugh Grant's villain in Paddington 2, he's barely an aperitif). Whose London is this, anyway? It doesn’t have the color to belong to the Banks children, nor the rugged realism to prove old Mr. Banks right all along. It’s styled from the old movie and that makes it almost cynical, in the visuals as well as in the story, that it would simultaneously seem so drab by comparison.
When we’re introduced to the Banks children, they are responsible little adults whose father Michael is a distracted artist-child and well-meaning ninny. When Mary introduces them to an underwater adventure in their bathtub, you’d think the kids would have none of it (and nor would I: the CGI fakery, done, I suspect, in the style of well-intentioned fakery of the past like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, inspires none of the warm fuzzies of the chalk drawing from the original … or the popping book sequence from Paddington 2, which is the last time I'll mention it, I promise). The new kids are unctuous, too proud to be in a dumb Mary Poppins movie, and yet readily accede to being the Banks children we expect them to be when the time comes. Mary Poppins Returns sets things up as though they will be different, but they are not: after Whishaw disappears for an hour to make room for song after song of dilly-dallying, there’s no room for anything but a reenactment. Marshall has made a sequel that feels more than anything like the stage-show version of the original movie. How could it measure up?
And why, of all possible lessons, does Mary Poppins Returns preach the value of childlike imagination, but only after we’ve adhered to an expeditious investment paradigm? It might now be considered great fortune that Michael didn’t give the pigeon lady his money all those years ago. Shares in the company, money in the bank, all those things that a bubbly fairy sprite countermanded for a single cool breeze and a rickety kite, are now essential to the happy resolution of all our lives. I don’t know if it was this movie’s intention to encourage the upbringing of a more fiduciary generation, but we seem to have sidestepped a simple vision for a more profitable, and less cheery one. When Van Dyke shows up in the new one, I was less happy to see him than I am when I pull up his internet Vines (he noodles through a little soft-shoe while he’s clothes shopping; I'd like to think it's for cummerbunds). He still runs the bank (he played the old, old man in the original if you didn’t know). Now, that’s supposed to be a good thing. The bank in Mary Poppins was just something they had to overcome in order to become children again. In the sequel, it’s like Glinda the Good Witch or a DisneyWorld day-pass. It magically makes their dreams come true.
Perhaps Mary Poppins herself would have something to say about all this complaining I’m caught up in. Perhaps she would “tsk” my over-thinking and trick me into a bathtub wonderland or a ceramic fairground to show me how wondrous the world can be if you think less about it. She'd probably tell me to enjoy the red jacket she appears in, and not to dwell on the fact that Travers explicitly hated Mary in red, something which clearly no one is sorry about since they've enlisted her own creation to flip her one last bird beyond the grave. I don’t doubt that someone who took great enjoyment out of this sequel would take Mary's side.
But when Michael proclaims at the end of Mary Poppins Returns in reference to the magic of his childhood adventures that “It was all real!” as though that's some kind of revelation, you can clearly see the gaps in the film’s imagination; if Mary would scold me, she would scold Mary Poppins Returns double. Surely, I can still take joy from my own childhood adventures, digging for dinosaur bones in my backyard, dramatically wiping the sweat from my tiny brow as I took a labored sip from my Playskool canteen, without them being real? Did I need to actually find dinosaur bones or buried treasure or to be really thirsty within an inch of my life to remember that little me fondly, to recall his world as one remembers the rooms of a beloved dollhouse or the illustrations of a favorite story? Surely, Michael Banks didn’t learn anything at all, else the sequel robs him of it, if he believes his adventure with Mary Poppins had to have been real: it doesn’t matter that it was real, but it does matter that it didn’t have to be. There’s no statute of limitations on childhood. There just is, it seems to me, on movie sequels.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
David Magee (screenplay and story)
Rob Marshall (story)
John DeLuca (story)
P.L. Travers (book)
|Mary Poppins||Emily Blunt|
|Michael Banks||Ben Whishaw|
|Jane Banks||Emily Mortimer|
|William "Weatherall" Wilkins||Colin Firth|