In 1964, Walt Disney released what many considered the pinnacle of his film career. Mary Poppins was an instant smash, making huge movie stars out of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, Oscar-winning composers out of two brothers, and cemented its place in film history with stand-out moments like the live action-animated “Jolly Holiday” sequence and chimney sweeps dancing over London rooftops in “Step in Time.”
Sadly, the Academy denied Walt the Oscar he deserved for Best Picture, giving it to the inferior My Fair Lady, but even Walt knew that out of the two films that lead the Oscar nominations that year, only one would go on to be one of the most beloved films of all time.
Which is why Mary Poppins Returns shouldn’t work. It’s a sequel to a nearly-perfect film that everyone has seen and nearly everyone loves. Why, now, is the beloved nanny (not played by Julie Andrews) returning to 17 Cherry Tree Lane?
Because the world needed her to come back.
I’m not talking about the world in which the new story takes place (1930’s London, nearly 20 years after the original). I’m talking about our world. Our sad, angry, hopeless, joyless, cynical world.
You see, Mary Poppins Returns is something entirely new. By lovingly and wonderfully crafting a new story about Mary Poppins and the Banks children, the filmmakers have given us something unheard in current films.
Mary Poppins Returns is the most joyful, hope-filled movie I’ve seen in years. Every song speaks to looking at the bad and finding the good, realizing laughter is worth seeking out, that even when you’re down and out, there’s “Nowhere to Go But Up!” It is the most “Walt Disney” film released by the studio in decades, reflecting Walt’s unwavering belief that “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow” and we should always “keep moving forward.”
The movie takes place during the Great Slump (Britain’s term for the Great Depression). Things are a bit down and out, obviously. The opening song even reflects that: “Yesterday you had to borrow from your chums, seems the promise of tomorrow never comes.” And it definitely hasn’t come for the grown-up Michael Banks (Ben Whshaw). The wide-eyed boy from the original film has been replaced by a sad, broken father who is losing the family home and hasn’t recovered from the loss of his wife.
His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still around to help, when she’s not organizing for the down-trodden workers of London (a nice reminder that her mother fought for women’s votes in the original film). And Ellen (Julie Walters), the younger maid from the first film, is still around–only slightly batty and a bit incorrigible. Michael’s three children (winningly played by Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) have learned to carry on and help out as much as they can in the wake of the family tragedy.
When Michael and Jane can’t find some important papers in the attic–finding only relics of their childhood, including the blocks from their nursery, the snowglobe with St. Paul’s Cathedral inside (from “Feed the Birds” in the original film), and the battered old family kite their father repaired and sang about–the events of the film truly begin. Michael throws the old kite out, showing he has forgotten about the joy of the past, sadly replacing it with bitterness, cynicism, and loss.
Into this dark and sad world, the clouds part, the sun shines, and Mary Poppins returns. And honestly, from that point on, the movie refuses to be gloomy. Like the earlier film, Mary Poppins arrives because there is dysfunction in the family. George Banks had forgotten the importance of being a father. His son has grown up and forgotten what it means to have joy. The task before Mary Poppins is to “take care of the Banks children,” and she’s not just talking about the children.
Emily Blunt is not Julie Andrews, nor does she try to be. The songwriters wisely refused to write any of the famous Andrews soprano notes into her songs, and her lower voice shines beautifully on every song–especially “Can You Imagine That” and “The Place Where the Lost Things Go.” Mary Poppins is such an iconic role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing her–yet Blunt makes her very much her own. She is clearly having a blast singing the songs and dancing, interacting with animated animals, bicycle-riding lamplighters, and the like. Her eyes dance with mischief, but she also plays up Mary Poppins’ vanity. After all, this is the woman who views herself as “practically perfect in every way.” The original film made Andrews a movie star. Mary Poppins Returns shows that Blunt very well should be. She is that good.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has never been famous on screen (one of his only other film appearances was in the underrated Disney fantasy The Odd Life of Timothy Green), being more well-known for creating and starring in Hamilton on Broadway. Like Van Dyke before him (who got his start starring in the original cast of Bye-Bye Birdie), Miranda is clearly at ease with song and dance. His cockney accent is slightly better than Van Dyke’s, and he’s not as nearly as lithe on his feet. But Miranda has never sounded better. His voice strains for many of the notes he wrote for himself in Hamilton, but here, with the songs set in a lower register, one can truly appreciate that he has a very nice voice. Through 90% of the film, his face wears a look that seems to say, “How the heck did I end up so lucky to be in this movie?” His smile couldn’t be much bigger and it’s clear he relished every moment.
The film is beautifully directed by Rob Marshall, who wisely keeps much of the film contained to a studio (the original was filmed entirely in Burbank, California), even using some of Disney Legend Peter Ellenshaw’s matte paintings from the 1964 film. This gives it a bit of a throwback feel in terms of look–the new movie looks like the original, so it’s not jarring to watch. It doesn’t seem fancied up and over-effected for 21st century audiences. The special effects are definitely an improvement over what was able to be accomplished 54 years ago–the entire Royal Doulton Bowl sequence’s blend of live-action and animation is stellar–but they don’t overwhelm the film. There are many great little reminders of the original movie (mostly in a few cues in the score, plus great recreations of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank and Cherry Tree Lane) but the new film is careful to avoid remaking anything. Everything feels purposeful and lovingly thought through so as to keep the attention where it truly lies: the story.
Mary Poppins Returns is a hope-filled movie. It’s a story about the fact that the things we think are lost truly aren’t. They are still there, waiting for us to find them again. Michael Banks may lose everything, but the important things–the things he has forgotten about–are still right there, in front of him. The gift his father and mother left him isn’t the big house on Cherry Tree Lane, it’s the gift of time with his children, finding the joy in every moment of life, discovering that hope is not lost–that we don’t have to give in to despair or worry.
The film’s joyful philosophy is found best, just as in the original, in its songs. Written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Witttman, the music for Mary Poppins Returns is easily the greatest Disney score in decades. (Honestly, it’s probably the best since Beauty and the Beast.) From the opening song “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” to the last chorus from the “End Credits Medley,” each song brims with hope and joy. (The songs feel like the wonderful Sherman Brothers score from the 1964 film, but the movie wisely avoids copying them. There are no “magical word” songs, which helps make it feel original and not a rip-off of the past.)
Mary Poppins introduces magic to the nursery again in the big production number, “Can You Imagine That?” She asks, “Some people like to splash and play, can you imagine that?” That there could be people in the world who smile and giggle and, even when they get hurt, “brush right off and start to laugh” is ludicrous in this world. What kind of crazy person, implies Mary Poppins, would live their life like that?
(This also serves as the moment when I fell madly in love with the movie. When Mary Poppins pushes herself into the bathtub, whispering, “Off we go!” it was over.)
All the songs are uniformly excellent (honestly–and this will be controversial, there are no stinkers here, unlike the original film, which really needed a better closing song. “I Love to Laugh” and Let’s Go Fly a Kite” are horribly repetitive songs). “Turning Turtle” is a fun and gypsy-jazz tune that reminds us when the world turns upside down, to just adjust our point view along with it. It’s sung very nicely by Meryl Streep (who is wisely relegated to a very minor screen appearance) and the children along with Blunt and Miranda.
“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a great production number in the vein of “Step in Time,” but with Rob Marshall’s Broadway background, it takes it to a whole new level. About 3 minutes into the number, it becomes a giant set piece of dance, stunts, fountains, fire, and music–and it’s every bit as deliriously fun as the chimney sweep dance from the original. I wish I could have joined them in a bit of a “kick and prance” myself.
There are two other key songs in the film, and they also sum up the film’s optimistic outlook. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is right up there with the greatest Disney songs. Blunt sings this haunting lullaby after the children wake up from a nightmare, missing their mother. But the song is about so much more than that.
Do you ever lie awake at night,
Just between the dark and the morning light,
Searching for the things you used to know,
Looking for the place where the lost things go.
Do you ever dream or reminisce,
Wondering where to find what you truly miss?
Or maybe all those things that you love so
Are waiting in the place where the lost things go?
(I don’t know a single adult who doesn’t feel this way at times. The world we live in is full of hurt and loss and sorrow and worry. We look back at the things we’ve loved and lost and can’t believe they are gone. How has this happened? How did we become so sad and broken?)
The song reassures and reminds us that “Nothing’s really left or gone without a trace, nothing’s gone forever, only out of place.” The hope and joy you lost? They aren’t gone. You don’t have to be cynical and take a dark view of life–everything you have lost is there, you just need to look for it (in the place where the lost things go). In this quiet moment, Mary Poppins Returns nearly shouts its hopeful outlook on life and the way we view our future.
Walt always believed the best in people. (If you really want to see this, visit The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The man was not just a corporate identity. He was one incredible human being who really loved his family and wanted the best for his daughters and the world they were growing up in.) Mary Poppins Returns wants us to believe the best in people, too. It’s unashamedly happy, a proud throwback to a time when movies didn’t have to have cynical characters or sarcastic jokes. By the time it’s nearly over, if you still aren’t convinced, Disney drops the ace card.
Angela Lansbury shows up as The Balloon Lady (a character from the original books) and suggests everyone take a different look at life. (It’s Angela Lansbury, for pete’s sakes. Mrs. Potts and Eglantine Price. She’s a Disney queen!) She sits in the park with a huge bouquet of balloons and begins singing,
Life’s a balloon that tumbles or rises, depending on what is inside.
Fill it with hope and playful surprises, and oh deary ducks, you’re in for a ride.
This line sums up the film so beautifully. It’s why Mary Poppins returns, after all. She comes back to the Banks family to remind them to start looking at life differently–to fill their lives with hope and joy (playful surprises). Yes, you may lose your home and your job. The world may be a horrible mess and in the middle of a great slump, but your outlook on life, the way only you can choose to live, is up to you. What will you fill your life with? What you put into your life’s balloon determines whether it rises or falls. It’s up to you. Will you choose to be cynical? Will you lose hope? Or will you choose joy and hope and laughter?
If your day’s up the spout, well, there isn’t a doubt
There’s nowhere to go but up
And if you don’t believe, just hang on to our sleeve
For there’s nowhere to go but up
As you fly over town, it gets harder to frown
And we’ll all hit the heights if we never look down
Let the past take a bow, the forever is now!
Just as in the first film, Mary Poppins doesn’t get a tearful goodbye. As the Banks family (and the audience) realize that there is joy in this world, that what they’ve been missing has been found, the wind changes. Mary Poppins has to leave, and she may never come back. But that’s okay. When we need her, we know where to look. She’s not far way–she’s just in the place where the lost things go. And when we look for her there, we’ll remember that she has helped all of us once again. We will never forget that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but now we also know that there’s nowhere to go but up!
PS: When Dick Van Dyke shows up in the movie, your heart will melt. If it doesn’t, you need to start the movie over from the beginning and listen closer: “Can You Imagine That?”