“You’ve forgotten what it’s like… to be a child.” – Balloon Lady
A cynic. Paraphrasing its definition, it’s the onslaught of doubt where necessity is questionable. Instead of believing the benefits it might bring, it’s the witnessed development of goals vested by self-interested causes. By film standards, it’s hard not to fall into that habit, especially when the majority of film releases are big-brand behemoths fuelled on the power of sequels, remakes and prequels that devours the competition. Other than financial benefits and recognition, the fearful absence of originality is telling.
Disney (in that respect) has epitomised that generation of thought when you consider their release calendar. Mary Poppins Returns joins a long list of branded, nostalgic titles to be given a ‘fresh lick of paint’ and 2019 will see the releases of Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King.
There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, but as I explored in a recent thought piece, nostalgia places itself in a difficult predicament. It wants to appeal to fans by validating the past, but its over-indulgence can lead to excessive fan service and unbalanced viewing experience. There is no doubt Disney has faced that tough question with mixed results. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book negotiated that balance well. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast – erm, not so much. Of course, that trepidation naturally follows Mary Poppins, a sentimental and profoundly imaginative classic that joyfully romped its way through nonsense words like ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. It’s unimaginable, unthinkable, impossible even that we’re living in a period where ‘untouchable’ films have now become part of that chain process of franchise familiarity. I mean, how will the sequel even measure up?
The answer is that it doesn’t, but reassuringly, nor does it try to. That might sound negative, but honest to God it’s not. Mary Poppins Returns is a rare example of its audacity to be a beast of its own.
There’s no mistaking the clear-cut template that resides in its musical beats. Director Rob Marshall paid attention to the details, right down to its Sherman brothers inspired score. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Underneath The London Sky (along with his dodgy, Dick Van Dyke cockney accent) is an ode to Chim Chim Cher-ee. The Place Where Lost Things Go is Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag), and Nowhere to Go But Up is a reprise of Let’s Go Fly a Kite. But honestly, the familiarity doesn’t matter. What sets Mary Poppins Returns apart (placing itself in the same league as Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens for example) is the strength of its convictions. Every frame is confidence that radiates into a unified message with an emotion comparable to watching both Paddington movies – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of charm, magic and some good old-fashioned optimism!
If 2018 is to be remembered for one thing, then it’s the power of the musical and truth be told, our love affair with musicals never ceased. As brilliantly conveyed in the BBC documentary The Sound of Movie Musicals with Neil Brand, musicals have found a way to continually adapt over the years, modernising into new, crowd-pleasing art forms. Given the circumstances of our reality today where you feel you’ve travelled to an alternate timeline that Marty McFly forgot to fix, the pure escapism of a sun-kissed song and dance is the perfect, feel-good tonic.
You only have to look at The Greatest Showman, a film that played (very) ‘fast and loose’ with its dodgy depiction of P.T. Barnum and yet found its audience by blending an enjoyable and contemporary Eurovision-esque playlist amongst its historical setting. Mamma Mia (and its sequel) and Bohemian Rhapsody delved into the back catalogue of its respective bands, utilising a formula that wouldn’t look out of a place on a karaoke jukebox. Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born may be an overly familiar story, but it’s made for the Spotify generation in mind, and you can’t go wrong with belters like Shallow, Always Remember Us This Way or Heal Me.
The fact is, the quality of those films (rightly or wrongly) becomes inconsequential when it comes to enjoyment. As long as it feels good to YOU, then it subjectively overrides the critical responses (in regards to The Greatest Showman and Bohemian Rhapsody). Quite surprisingly though, Mary Poppins Returns is an exception to that rule. The music is catchy and time will tell if the quality can last like its predecessor. But it has an audacious time having a go at it.
Operating as ‘the complete package’, you can’t fault how seamless the story unfolds, beautifully transitioning between story and music as if it was flying a kite and ‘sending it soaring’. As with its predecessor, Mary Poppins Returns finds a way to break up its elements to go beyond the ‘song and dance’ tale.
In my previous post, I explored the nature of grief and how films have found contemporary methods to bring it to the forefront in search of empathetic understanding and normalised acceptability and Mary Poppins Returns easily joins that list as an effective coping mechanism. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) becomes the focal point of its story, watching the emotional struggle with the loss of his wife. It’s the abandonment of his creative passions to work in a bank to financially keep a roof over his head and becoming the sole provider to three young children. Rudimentary and straight-forward it may seem, but it’s how the music helps reinforce those deep, internalised thoughts and it’s a feeling that overwhelmingly takes you by surprise.
In A Conversation, it’s a state of re-adjustment and guidance, acknowledging the longing absence and permanent silence of the departed. It balances the one thousand questions running through your mind knowing you’re in a place where you long for the past and the unyielding reluctance that you have to move on. You’re left with “no choice” as the song suggests. Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) singing The Place Where the Lost Things Go is the ‘cathartic response’ to A Conversation, the grief counsellor to a perfectly timed and comforting bookend of highly-charged emotions amongst the uplifting whimsical and nostalgia. Both songs act as a sleeping lullaby, but it’s Blunt’s solo performance that differentiates itself as an inspiring look within ourselves – whatever is lost or broken can be found and fixed. Films love to do paralleled comparisons to signify a point, and The Place Where the Lost Things Go is the shining light to the sombre and gloomy darkness that emits from A Conversation.
The cynic in me would easily say it’s a manufactured response, engineered to deliberately pull on the heartstrings in a faux-pas move to recapture the magic of the original. But like anything that comes along with nostalgia, it comes down to the merits of its intention. Do the actors believe in what they’re conveying? Does the film have enough substance to set out a distinction where it’s not competing but acts as a faithful companion? These questions matter and sometimes the sheer simplicity is all that’s needed to demonstrate that. While it’s easy to tap your feet to songs like Trip a Little Light Fantastic and Can You Imagine That?, Whishaw and Blunt capture a raw emotion providing Mary Poppins Returns its sentimental heart and arguably, the most significant songs of the film.
“When you change the view from where you stood, the things you view will change for good.” – Mary Poppins
If Mary Poppins Returns proves anything that 2018 was an extremely good year for Emily Blunt…and her love of bathtubs (if you’ve seen A Quiet Place).
Some critics have talked about Blunt’s lack of dynamism as the magical nanny, lazily repeating the ‘she’s not as good as Julie Andrews’ commentary. It’s an understandable point but also a complete disregard to the versatility that Blunt possesses and (perhaps) a slight misunderstanding on the context of what Mary Poppins ultimately represents. Because it’s impossible to live up to the high standards that Andrews set, but Blunt sets a masterclass example in bringing her interpretation to the table.
Turn the clocks back to 2013 to John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, a meticulous, dramatised biopic on the making of Mary Poppins and its complicated relationship between its author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks).
Blunt ‘hams up’ the poshness but typifies Travers’ demeanour and characterisation, right down to the dialect and pronunciation. Mary Poppins Returns still retains that ‘Disney-fied’ look with its frequent callbacks to the traditional, animation and large-scale dance numbers (which the overprotective and disapproving Travers had to wrestle with constantly throughout her life), but it’s endearing soul (as in why we’ve continually found ourselves returning to its magical world) is arguably closer to the source material and why Travers wrote the stories.
The deeply personal story of Mary Poppins and its creator has gone on to symbolise how interconnected the original, the biopic and now the sequel has become. Mary Poppins did not come to save the children. The new generation of Banks children already had a rumbustious and curious side, allowing them to learn life lessons for themselves before selectively intervening. Her job, as it has always has been is to repair the family unit and her involvement has always been a cathartic delve to remind us the relevant things in life, a feat which was not granted to the real-life Travers and her father as dramatised in Saving Mr. Banks.
Logically, we’ll never know how Mary Poppins is capable of doing the things she does. I mean, she wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider for example! It’s not like we know what she is and besides opening up an X-File on her, she is this magical nanny who appears once the wind changes. As with Andrews before her, what Blunt takes on in abundance is the sentimental maturity. It may not be overtly apparent given the regimented order she functions by, but Mary Poppins cares and always has, right down to the deployment of her reverse-psychology tactics towards the children. You can see it in the smallest, solemn moments where she watches the very people she’s instilled to look after. Even saying goodbye carries a reluctant hesitancy, in the same way, we don’t want the Mary Poppins experience to end. Quite frankly, Blunt’s singing performance will take all the limelight and bravado (so to speak), but it’s what she does outside of that, taking a more observant, back seat is what I believe is an underrated and nuanced performance.
By the end, you’re not thinking about petty comparisons (at least not too much). Leaving you spellbound, you believe unequivocally that Mary Poppins is 100% real. That’s where Disney easily forgets with their indulgence in these live action re-imaginings. Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, for example, lost sight what made the original so romantically endearing in the first place, replacing the heart with ‘more’ of everything. They didn’t make the same mistake here, and however formulaic the story may appear, Blunt’s performance makes all the difference.
I guess that’s why Mary Poppins has always lasted the test of time, taking a life of its own despite the procrastination from its creator. Instead of the world dictating how it should work, the presence of Mary Poppins forces the world to bend towards her. As much as you want to resist its imaginative madness, you eventually surrender to its wonder.
Let’s just say that Mary Poppins Returns melted the heart of this cynic. Evoking the same spirit as the original, Mary Poppins Returns is a pitch-perfect and sentimental celebration of life. As the mythical nanny would say, it was “practically perfect in every way”.
Now, is it too much to ask for Mary Poppins Forever Disney?