The single greatest gift Walt Disney’s 1964 adaptation of Mary Poppins offered us — more so even than Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, no matter how long the tune’s been stuck in my head — was learning that our survival in the adult world hinged on our willingness to balance and embrace the absurd nature of human existence.
I can’t say that I understood this back when I used to pretend to be a chimney sweep in my parents’ living room, turning couches into rooftops. But I believe this idea that our imaginations are medicinal got subconsciously lodged in my bones at an early age, thanks to Mary Poppins.
What the original film gets so right is showing how our imaginations are not just escape hatches into fantasy, but how, perhaps, they might be more real than we care to admit. How, for instance, an imagination can be like an ever-morphing apparatus through which we feed dreams into reality, and vice versa.
Unlike a tornado sweeping us away to Oz or falling down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, the world of Mary Poppins overlaps the realistic with the absurd — and in doing so what might seem ridiculous is given merit by its relationship with the “real” world. The two coexist as if nothing were out of order.
Absurdity is built into the DNA of the original film’s narrative — so much so that from the very beginning it’s impossible to isolate what’s real from what’s imagined, if such a thing concerns you. The story begins with a glimpse of Mary Poppins seated nonchalantly on a cloud high above London. Far below, just outside a park, a man named Bert sings a comical poem. After he observes a premonition in the changing wind, Bert addresses the audience, and we follow him up Cherry Tree Lane where we meet a retired Admiral who’s converted his roof into a battleship. Everything in this world seems as real as it does absurd and no one attempts to explain otherwise.
And by absurd, I mean, philosophically speaking, capital-A Absurd. As in, the soul of the movie is concerned with characters that must confront the fact that life likes to simultaneously dish out purpose and purposelessness. How the sorrows of life are as low as the joys are high. How the pursuit of meaning is futile, as Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus: “This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”
The original Mary Poppins treats the subject of meaninglessness and human suffering as absurdly as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In the original film, George Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, is the manifestation of the supposed structure and order of reality — however you choose to define such a thing. He is the main force that opposes the absurdities of the world. He wants his home to be run with the precision of a British bank.
It’s Mr. Banks’s transformation towards the end of the film, from a banker of some esteem to a disgraced, yet joyful, Chaplin-esque clown, that mirrors Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a big bug — though the banker chooses life, and Kafka’s traveling salesman, depending on your reading, chooses suicide.
This is where 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns ultimately and profoundly bombs. Director Rob Marshall even admits to undermining the very thing that charmed me about the original by actively segregating the real from the imagined. It’s as if Marshall heeded the advice of Mr. Banks from the original film, before his embrace of the absurd, when the character rails against the frivolity of time spent wasting away in the joys of childlike imaginations. Mr. Banks tells Mary Poppins straight up: “If [my children] go on outings, they must be fraught with purpose and practicality.” And so it seems Marshall took this to heart and injected such into every inch of his rendition.
“I really wanted to bring reality to the film,” Marshall said in a November 2018 interview posted on YouTube by Movie Roar. And it shows. He set out to design “two different worlds.” One for the imagined. One for the real. He says he wanted to “juxtapose” the real world with the fantasy world. And by doing so he engineered into the updated narrative his own rabbit hole — eliminating what was so distinctive about the original — the fact that by the time we dance with animated penguins, we’ve already witnessed the supernatural threaded through the natural — so that even a penguin choreography seems as magically run-of-the-mill as the rest of the Poppins universe as we’ve seen so far.
The beginning of Mary Poppins Returns is bogged down in Marshall’s replica of the real. And it’s a tragic betrayal to the original’s essence. P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, famously hated the original film. I’d imagine, if she were still around today, she’d have a heart attack seeing this disfigured interpretation of her beloved character.
I’m not one of those film purists who has a meltdown every time some movie from my past is remade. I’m generally eager to see remakes and hope they find new ways of bringing similar joys to younger audiences. If I’m being honest though, I was reluctant to see anyone do Mary Poppins other than Julie Andrews. But I was duped by the trailers for Mary Poppins Returns. I might’ve even shed a tear when I saw that there’d be 2-D animation. One thing the trailer did get right, which also held up in the film, was that Emily Blunt is a damn good heir to the Poppins costume. That said, Blunt deserved a hell of a lot better than this. Her Poppins was too good for this subpar imitation.
From the start, Returns is robbed of any and all magic. Its opening scenes are morbidly grounded in a drab London not unlike something Harry Potter fans know as the Muggle World — a boring, unenthusiastic place devoid of wonder. As soon as the opening number is finished, an exhausting lullaby sung by a lamp lighter named Jack, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, we return to the familiar house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Michael Banks, now middle-aged and with three young children, is mourning the recent death of his wife and avoiding all responsibility. His three young children are trying to pick up his slack and care for the house. The plumbing’s gone awry. The kitchen’s not been stocked. As Michael’s father George would’ve said: “It’s a ghastly mess.”
Narratively, the decision to make the children the ones who are so responsible is an interesting one. One which could have set up the idea that these children who’ve had to grow up faster than they should have, due to the loss of a parent, could possibly, by way of Mary Poppins, regain their innocence. Unfortunately, the movie only pretends to want this for its characters. “We’re on a brink of an adventure, children, don’t spoil it with too many questions,” Blunt’s Poppins says. Ironically, the movie itself can’t help but find ways to answer the unexplainable.
We soon learn that the new antagonist is the bank — specifically, the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, a man named William Wilkins. Michael has taken out a loan that’s now defaulted because he couldn’t keep up with the payments. 17 Cherry Lane is up for repossession. In a sense, the loan echoes the very thing Disney and Marshall are doing to their original story: cashing in on an old asset by repossessing one of Disney’s most recognizable stories. And ultimately, falling short of the buck — or should I say, tuppence.
That the movie chooses to take on money, greed, and power, over the loss of the freedom of imagination is what eventually becomes its gravest mistake. The film’s emphasis on the discovery of joy is inverted by its focus on the material. In Mary Poppins Returns, the joy is found not in imagination but in success. Michael Banks finds happiness, but only once he’s got new clothes and wins back his home. Although, in the few minutes when we are supposed to believe he might not get the house back, he does rather unconvincingly claim that his family is really all that he needs, and it all sounds very nice, but it’s hardly believable as the audience has been manipulated by this point to understand that the real happiness can’t come until he gets back his material possessions. The narrative has worked so hard to make sure everything, even the “fantasy” sequences, all add up to relieving the pressure of a lost childhood home, rather than the loss of childhood innocence.
Returns is so preoccupied with saving the house that everything else seems secondary. There is now nothing but purpose and practicality oozing out of every scene where there was once whimsy. Instead of the surprises sprinkled through the original (like Poppins being stopped by a dog, from whom she extracts a bit of news) the new plot’s puppet strings keep coming into view frequently. In that world which once seemed impulsive, everything’s become predictable. Even the magic that does take place loses its joy and surprise, only seeming to exist in service of the “real” narrative, a plot that contends imagination isn’t paramount to materialism.
Returns seems afraid to deviate from the straightforward, to partake in whim, to just float wherever the wind takes you. The result is a distinct feeling of being condescended to — the film does the one thing Mary Poppins promises to never do: Explain. Neither the characters nor the audience ever really get the chance to interpret the magic for themselves. The narrative constantly winks at its audience to remind us where and when the real becomes the imagined.
Lest the film end on a note of mystery, Marshall holds all of our hands through the final scene. Most of the characters have gathered in the park for the end of the film, much like the first, and cheerfully take balloons from the Balloon Lady. The balloons lift them all up into the sky. And it almost seems that, for once, the movie might finally merge the realistic with the fantastic. My heart pumped a bit faster at the sight of it. As if the whole movie served to show us that this type of balancing act between the real and the imagined was still possible.
But as we have learned, the Balloon Lady must obliterate all hope of a world where the absurd and the real might work in tandem: “Of course,” the Balloon Lady says to Poppins, “the grown-ups will all forget this tomorrow.”
But don’t just take my word for it. Whose judgment should we trust on the value of a children’s film, but a child’s?
On a recent sick day, my two-year-old and I stayed home and watched both the original and Returns back-to-back. I don’t think he considers himself a purist — we both love the remakes of Charlotte’s Web and Jungle Book. He’s seen the original Mary Poppins countless times, and still, it elicits gasps and giggles throughout. Even though he knows to expect each scene, it still manages to surprise him. It still surprises me. There seems to be something fundamentally missing from the core of Marshall’s new version that it can’t even produce a handful of gasps in a two-year-old.
What the original Poppins reminds us is that no matter how ridiculous life can be, how low things might get, if we can find a way to let even a little absurdity shine through and embrace it, we can survive this thing. The new film only pretends to offer those kinds of life-altering epiphanies. Unfortunately, its hope hinges on material possession over inner health. Mary Poppins Returns has more in common with the false charm of a Pepsi commercial than a Disney classic.
I often consider Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins when she quotes Keats: A thing of beauty is a joy forever. That thing, I think, is the wild and intangible nature of imagination. It’s the only thing that is ever truly our own, though we can, if we dare, allow it to spring forth from our minds in an effort to process and interface with that which seems nonsensical. Our imaginations allow us to solve riddles, learn empathy, invent infinite worlds that seem as real as any. I just hope Disney keeps that in mind when they go about manufacturing part three.