In the last 10 minutes or so of Mary Poppins Returns, something truly magical happens.
First, Dick Van Dyke shows up, virtually reprising his brief secondary role from Mary Poppins as the ancient bank president, except that, at 91 (at the time of the shoot; he’s now 93), he has now aged into the role — even if he’s still spryer than the doddering geezer he played in 1964. (That character died laughing in the original, so Van Dyke is playing his son here.)
Then, in the finale at the park, Angela Lansbury (also now 93) shows up to sing a song. It hardly matters that Lansbury has no prior connection to Mary Poppins. She’s an icon of the same milieu, having played a magical caretaker of children in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, another live-action/animation hybrid musical from exactly the same creative team. (Lansbury’s chief source of Disney cred comes, of course, from playing Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast.)
Van Dyke dances and Lansbury sings — and somehow they’re just exactly the same, in a way that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill weren’t and couldn’t be in the new Star Wars films.
They rise above all possible objections and criticism, and, for those brief minutes, Mary Poppins Returns feels genuinely of a piece with the original and its world. Not weak homage, like Fantasia 2000; not a pale retread, like the nouveau Beauty and the Beast; not a subversion, like Maleficent; but the Real Thing, like the underappreciated 2011 Winnie the Pooh.
So. About the two hours before that.
Here is where I must confess that, for all my affection for Van Dyke — and, of course, the legendary Julie Andrews — I have no great affection for Walt Disney’s beloved take on P.L. Travers’ magical nanny. I’m fully aware that for many readers this discredits entirely whatever thoughts I may have about Mary Poppins Returns, if not movies in general. I understand completely. Said readers are more than welcome to stop reading here and turn to some less contrarian critic.
I do recognize the tremendous talent that went into Mary Poppins. The Sherman brothers’ songs alone, arranged and conducted by Irwin Kostal, almost earn the film’s classic status. And I can’t complain too much about the sketchy plot and who-cares resolution, since clearly it’s beside the point.
One thing that does bug me are vestiges of themes and ideas inherited from Travers’ books that make no sense in their sanitized, Disneyfied context. I hold no brief for or against Travers’ books, which I’ve never read, but she was a complicated and unconventional woman with strong ideas about politics and social order, feminism and patriarchy, class and economics. Whatever one thinks of Travers’ ideas or how her books express them, in the movie these themes float about with no real purpose or function.
In a way, my lack of enthusiasm for Mary Poppins works in the new film’s favor. If Mary Poppins Returns, co-written and directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods), has a rather slapdash plot, well, so did the original.
There’s more plot here than in the original, and more conflict, with an established crisis, a villain, a menacing animated chase sequence, and a climactic action-thriller finale. Perhaps this is a concession to the expectations of a generation of children raised on tougher fare.
Yet nostalgia for the innocent spirit of the original pervades Mary Poppins Returns. Indeed, nostalgia for the original pervades virtually every aspect of the new film, from the production design of Cherry Tree Lane, where Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins arrives to look after the next generation of Banks children, to the beat-for-beat exactness with which the sequel follows the original. It’s a meticulous exercise in re-creation, as exact as possible in almost every respect.
Young Michael and Jane are now grown-up and played by Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer. Michael, a sensitive artist, is a young widower with three children of his own (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson). He now works as a lowly teller at the bank where his father was a partner. Jane is single and takes after their suffragette mother’s social consciousness as a labor activist.
What about Blunt? For generations of fans, of course, Andrews is the quintessential and irreplaceable Mary Poppins — but the character has been interpreted in other ways, notably in the popular stage musical. (Travers, meanwhile, hated the movie, but that’s another topic.) I saw Laura Michelle Kelly play Mary Poppins on Broadway in 2011, and I liked her slightly ambiguous, capricious, mischievous take on the character.
Blunt is a chameleonic actress, and her Mary Poppins is in the spirit of Kelly’s, which might only be another way of saying that Andrews’ absolute beatific benevolence belongs to her alone. Mary Poppins is not necessarily Julie Andrews, but Andrews being Andrews makes Mary Poppins the movie that it is, and no one else could possibly have done it.
Like this year’s Christopher Robin, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and the granddaddy of them all, Steven Spielberg’s Hook, Mary Poppins Returns is yet another revisionist sequel about childhood whimsy lost and regained.
Robin Williams’ lawyer in Hook had forgotten all about being Peter Pan. Likewise, Alice and Christopher Robin came to suppose that Wonderland and the Hundred-Acre Wood were just childhood imagination. Now, Jane and Michael also believe that all their adventures with Mary Poppins were just pretend, too.
Hook has been interpreted as an expression of nostalgia for the childlike wonder of Spielberg’s early work and concern about losing touch with that. Could Disney’s repeated revisiting of the same trope suggest a similar anxiety on a corporate level?
For the most part, though, the better you know Mary Poppins, the more certain you will be about what will happen next in Mary Poppins Returns.
Here’s where Mary and the kids visited Uncle Albert, so now it’s time for a visit to another relative of Mary’s (Meryl Streep), and it turns out that this one also plays with gravity. Here’s where Mary brings the kids to the bank and allows them to get into a scrape that causes their father grief, though it will all work out in the end.
Here’s where Bert and the chimney sweeps did Step in Time, so now we’ll have another big choreographed dance number with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack and his fellow “leeries” or lamplighters. (As this sequence approached, I thought: The sweeps went up to the rooftops, and that wouldn’t make sense for the leeries, so the obvious thing would be to go down … and, sure enough, a lamppost becomes a firehouse pole going down into the sewers, though the scene doesn’t stay there.)
This holds true until it doesn’t, and the climax is a suspense set piece corresponding to nothing in the original. At least the resolution is given narrative weight, though if you think about it it may occur to you that a) Mary Poppins sabotaged the family in order to “save” them, and b) Michael Banks is utterly incompetent to run a household or to be responsible for children.
And, if you have any affection for the denouement of the original, you may or may not be exasperated (I was) to hear a famous line that is the very soul of whimsy and playfulness suddenly given urgent dramatic meaning. Just imagine if one of the characters were a diabetic who had taken too much insulin and someone had said very seriously, “Quick! A spoonful of sugar, and hurry!” As bad as that would be, this is worse.
And yet the more nostalgic you are for Mary Poppins, it may be that the more you will enjoy this meticulous cinematic cover. The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) are pretty forgettable, but there are a couple you might hum a bit before returning to A Spoonful of Sugar and Let’s Go Fly a Kite.
One of the more memorable songs, Where the Lost Things Go, offers a kind of sentimental elegy for whatever is lost, including Michael’s late wife and the mother of his children.
Mary Poppins was hardly a Christian film, but at least in Feed the Birds there were saints and apostles looking down and smiling on people who showed they cared. Painting a whimsical verbal picture about a lost dish or spoon playing hide-and-seek behind the moon is one thing. That’s not a place I’d care to put my dearly departed loved ones.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of DecentFilms.com.
Caveat Spectator: Mild menace. Fine family viewing.