By Elizabeth Toohey.
Because I wasn’t planning to write about Mary Poppins Returns, but only to watch it recreationally with my six-year old, I did something verboten for a reviewer, which was to read a few reviews before actually viewing the film. Manohla Dargis’ scathing pan of the sequel for the New York Times, which she found superficial and cloying, made me laugh and groan. Terry Gross’s interview-cum-rave with Emily Blunt for NPR, in turn, gave me hope. I entered the theater, then, braced for saccharine tininess, but hoping for magic, holding my six-year old son’s hand.
In fact, Mary Poppins Returns reveals much less about the 1964 film than about the current moment in which it was made, as is often the case with stories, real or fictional, located in the past. It has its luminous moments (thanks mostly to Lin Manuel-Miranda) but also many that fall flat. What interested me most, though, were the ways it reflected on our own times.
Bad Guys: He’s Not the Captain Anymore.
When my children first saw The Sound of Music (1965), one their more memorable responses (apart from my son referring to the nuns as “gay” in an entirely non-derogatory way—his best friend has two moms) was my 2.5-year-old daughter, who is fond of identifying “bad-guys,” saying of Captain Von Trapp, in the pivotal scene when he hears his children sing for the first time, he’s not the Captain anymore.
She was right, of course, he’s not; Maria and the music have transformed him.
The original Mary Poppins follows a similar trajectory with its patriarch, Mr. Banks. He’s the “bad guy” to begin with, or as close to one as there is. At the heart of the story is his transformation from a man deeply insensitive to his children, blindly spouting Edwardian patriarchal platitudes, to the father who throws it all to the wind to go fly a kite with them. It’s moving, even more so if you’ve seen Saving Mr. Banks (2013), and know the backstory of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins.
In the sequel Mary Poppins Returns, a grown Michael, now the father himself, is not a bad guy, but a sad guy, one who’s can’t seem to manage bathing his children or paying the mortgage since his wife died. For Disney to retreat into the dead-mother plot is, as Dargis points out, a backwards step, though it bothered me much less viscerally than I expected. The grown Jane and Mary Poppins herself meant that there was an ample presence of competent, independent, nurturing women populating the film, dead mother or not.
What made me unexpectedly uneasy, though, was the way a grown, albeit grief-stricken Michael couldn’t manage to keep track of paying the bills or of a record of his father’s stock options in the bank, or even to give his children a bath. And this with a servant who cleans and makes dinner.
I may be more sensitive to this, frankly, because my husband, who is our primary caregiver-and-homemaker, and quite competent at it, would have been tearing his hair out at seeing another bumbling, incompetent filmic father. Fortunately, he was home feeding our toddler lunch and putting her down for her nap.
Just as tiresome and problematic was Disney’s farming out and amplification of the unsavory aspects of the original Mr. Banks to poor Colin Firth in the truly thankless role of the bank’s director, so that his character consists purely of a greedy, sniveling, dishonest, and avaracious two-dimensional, “bad-guy.”
I’ve developed, of late, a newfound tolerance for stories with more purely and irredeemably bad “bad-guys,” mostly as a result of the Trump era, but in this context, to do as the sequel does and miss entirely how immorality stems from an absence of compassion, generally from men trapped in a narrow way of seeing the world – and to eschew the idea that this tunnel-vision might be blown open with enough creativity and love – is to miss the spirit of the original Mary Poppins, while hewing to the letter.
The Heroic Women of Cherry Tree Lane
In the character of grownup-Jane, one feels ripples of Hollywood’s #MeToo moment, it’s post-Bechdel-rule one, but as much to the point, this version of Jane captures the spirit of Glynis Johns in the original, who as Winnifred, may defer to her husband, but is also energized by the suffragette movement and herself energizes the film with her song about the future of equality she envisions. Emily Mortimer’s Jane infuses the sequel with a sense gentle joy, trying to help her brother out of the hole he’s in, while organizing rallies for workers’ rights with a sense of passion and fulfilment – and then, getting her romance after all, but with such a light touch, as a sort of frosting on the cake, and with Lin Manuel Miranda, the ultimate Prince Charming these days. That Miranda steals the show is hardly surprising, but it’s not just for his singing and dancing, but his look of wonder and delight at getting to be a part of this film as Jack the “leary” or lamplighter who is the counterpart to Bert, Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep.
Rather than imitating Van Dyke, Miranda alludes to him with a nod and a wink, a model from which Emily Blunt would have benefitted. As beloved and gorgeous as she is, and as is her voice, as Dargis notes, her acting is all surface and no depth. As much as I’d like to attribute her missteps to misdirection, Blunt’s interview with Terry Gross where she went on about capturing MP’s “posh accent” exposed the root of the problem – she seems to have been too caught up in imitating the inimitable Julie Andrews. Blunt is forever preening herself in the mirror, patting her hair and exclaiming, practically perfect!, but the original Mary Poppins, my husband pointed out, is proud, not vain. (Perhaps we should send her a copy of Pride and Prejudice to explain the distinction?) In fairness, Disney’s separating out the note of romance with Jack and farming it out to Jane, makes Jane’s story richer, but robs Blunt’s Mary Poppins of some moments in which she might have expressed a more subtle, genuine fondness and fun.
In any case, if there is a sequel, I’d like to request it be about Jane and Jack falling in love, overcoming class boundaries, and saving the world.
On Houses and Home: Or, in which I Idiotically Expect More from a Hollywood Ending
The trauma at the heart of MP2 has been framed as the family’s loss of their mother by Dargis and others, but the real crisis, I would argue, centers on the Banks family home, which they are in danger of losing because of missed mortgage payments.
In other words, their conflict is the crisis of the last decade, which has swung from hundreds of thousands losing their homes to an entire generation unable to afford a home, whether because of rebounded real estate values, ballooning debt from college loans, the instability of the gig economy, or a combination thereof.
It’s not easy to explain mortgages by whispering in the middle of a film to a six-year-old, but that’s what I found myself doing, since mine has only ever heard of paying the rent given that we live in a city where the only people who can afford mortgages work in tech or finance, or have inherited wealth – unlike say, a parent who is an English professor who writes reviews on the side (but I’m not bitter). My son, who tends to be very anxious about stories coming out right, kept exclaiming in his own stage whisper, oh, no, I think they’re going to lose the house! (thankfully our seatmates were nice about this) so as far as grabbing children’s attention, story-wise, missing mortgage payments is apparently as good a conflict as any for the elementary school crowd.
But if you’re trying to actually capture the spirit of the original Mary Poppins, the problem is that all the urgency hinges on this external problem – how will they pay the mortgage? – which overshadows any more interior, spiritual questions about family or what makes a home a home.
In a moment of hopeless optimism towards the end of the film, then, when the house is empty, the moving van loaded, and there’s talk of the family going to live in Aunt Jane’s flat, I thought, oh, wow, maybe they are going to lose the house! Wouldn’t that have been amazing? What a gift to families who have lost a house, or had to move for a parent’s new job or to care for an aging relative, or rent a too-small apartment? What if Aunt Jane’s apartment looks like ours, you’ll forgive me for thinking, and what if they all find a newly invigorated bohemian life there?!
What if the message of the film is that home isn’t about the house, and that even though you can’t always stop unscrupulous people in power, like that moustache-twirling villain of a banker, Colin Firth, you do always have some control over how you face these personal tragedies, like drawing close to your children and teaching them that all the joy and intimacy of your family life isn’t bound up in a building or even a certain amount of space, but can be preserved intact, nay, even strengthened, in a close quarters – in, god forbid, a rented flat?!
I’m a fool, of course.
Ahem – spoiler alert – the house is saved and the villainous banker gets his just deserts, all through a stroke of luck and inherited wealth, and Mary Poppins’ magic, rather than any real resourcefulness on anyone’s part.
I know, I know, Hollywood movies, especially ones targeted at kids, are about wish-fulfilment, but couldn’t there have been some learning and growing on Michael’s part, as the translation of the father who needs reforming? Couldn’t there have been some sort of meat here, instead of just the dumb luck and frankly, adult fantasy of a rich father who invested your shilling well? For yes, that’s what we are told in the deus-ex-machina denouement – the bank that took Michael’s shilling invested it so well that he needn’t worry about emptying his kids college fund – really, I’m not making this up. What’s the lesson here, that thank goodness, the boy Michael in the original didn’t feed the birds? (Did he feed the birds? Now, I’m just confused…)
Contemporary audiences needn’t worry: There is nothing here that suggests that having a family or a life in the arts may require sacrifice or that any reward is worth having other than your big family house. You also won’t have to look at an elderly, possibly homeless, definitely impoverished woman, like audiences did in the original.
Apropos, on the heartbreak of losing a family home in a kids’ movie, the 2016 animated Sing does it better when the theater that was given to the protagonist, the koala Buster Moon, by his father after a lifetime of work, collapses after years of disrepair in a sort of 9/11-meets-the-housing-bubble moment – Buster sleeps in a drawer in his office, so it is his literal home, and theater people, one might recall, call the theater “the house.” In brief, the resolution at least suggests collaboration and actual time and labor, even if it’s set to a sped-up music montage. There’s a banker in Sing, too, but Judith-the-llama-banker is more blameless bureaucrat than villain. She is even shown approving the paperwork when Buster is able to pay the mortgage on his land back to the bank at the end. Colin Firth, by contrast, is unredeemable and punished, albeit fairly gently, at the end – he’s fired, and his balloon won’t get off the ground.
On the Distinction Between Kites and Balloons
Kites are something you can construct yourself, as the children do in the original Mary Poppins. When broken, they can be repaired, as the father Mr. Banks does. Kites can be individuated and decorated, like a work of art. In the original Mary Poppins, at the end, the very-much-alive-wife-and-mother Winnifred ties her suffragette sash to the kite as its new tail. Kites takes some skill to fly. A kite may require you to run with it or hold on tight or to let it out with the wind or reel it in like a sail. A kite may also take two people to make it take off, one to run with it and launch it, while the other reels out the string. Flying them can be collaborative. Kids take turns.
Flying a kite may seem like just a lark, but it’s actually a pretty rich metaphor for living.
Balloons, which the creators of the sequel apparently thought were a great translation for kites, require nothing of the owner but holding the end of a string – if they burst, there’s nothing you can do. In MP2, balloons magically float their owners up into the air like the metaphorically-inebriated Uncle Albert. Choosing your balloon must be done carefully says the sorely mis-used (spoiler!) balloon-lady Angela Lansbury. Whatever that means.
~ Elizabeth Toohey, 12/31/2018
Elizabeth Toohey is a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays have appeared in Film International and Terror in Global Narrative: Representations of 9/11 in the Age of Late-Late Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.