Mary Poppins: the icon responsible with so many things that we now associate with British culture, nannies, and childhood in general. She is both no-nonsense (perhaps just as “keep calm and carry on,” as the Queen herself) and whimsical (she’s got Elizabeth II beat on that one). She floats calmly into a family, shakes the foundations down to a crumble, and begins the necessary task of building it back again…making herself unnecessary in the process. Her tools are a mixture of musical numbers, sensibility, life lessons, and instruction in magical (if seemingly random) skills such as jumping into chalk portraits and chimney sweeping in the clouds.
(Because, you know, it’s a jolly holiday with Mary.)
The Banks children aside, this woman was an important figure in the childhood of millions. So when Disney decided to make a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, I think a lot of us felt afraid. Personally, I wanted to love it because I wanted more Mary Poppins in my life. But, remaking a classic? That is very tricky, especially when you are messing with an icon like Mary.
Play it too safe, and you risk the result feeling like a boring parody of the original. Go too far outside of the box- either with the character, the tone, or the plot-and you are going to make a lot of dedicated fans very grumpy.
Still, I wanted to see it, and I *finally* did a few days ago. Despite the fact that several people have called this film, “practically perfect,” I was a little skeptical and tried to go into it with few expectations. However, I was shocked by how quickly this film won me over. Having given it a little consideration, here are 4 ways I think Mary Poppins Returns completely gets it right.
1.Emily Blunt IS Mary Poppins, but she is not Julie Andrew’s Mary Poppins.
Personally, my biggest fear about this film was that it would be pretty much impossible to do a believable Mary Poppins character that didn’t feel like a lackluster Julie Andrew’s impersonation. How do you even separate Julie Andrews and Mary Poppins? Fortunately, Emily Blunt owns this character in a way that is completely outside of a Julie-shaped box.
All of the Mary Poppin’s character qualities are there (kind but extremely firm, always in control of the game, full of magical surprises, rosy cheeks etc.) but her mannerisms are different. One of the first ways this comes through immediately is in Blunt’s more aristocratic-sounding British accent and some jazzier singing moments (which also reflects the film’s time period of the 1930s). Stylistic choices like these helped me immediately separate Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins from Julie Andrew’s, which allowed me to get into the film more quickly and easily.
2. The Plot Follows the Original Formula
Saying that a movie is “formulaic,” is rarely a compliment. However, certain movie genres can get away with it, and children’s films are one of them. Mary Poppins Returns uses heavy-handed formula in its favor. Keeping things spoiler-free, let’s just say it like this: if you were to take Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns and break them both down into a timeline categorized into “events, reactions, and musical numbers,” you would have two identical timelines. Identical. Therefore, while many things about the sequel are different from the original, the experience of watching Mary Poppins Returns is extremely familiar.
Surprisingly, this doesn’t translate badly. Instead, is clear that the structure is intentional, and it reminded me of the way that children’s book series often keep the same formula while mixing up the details. Since Mary Poppins springs from the children’s book series by P.L. Travers, this seems appropriate. More importantly, the familiar effect is grounding.
3. Balance in the details.
Of course, Mary Poppins Returns would be a really boring movie if it had an identical plot formula AND the same events, issues, characters, etc. Instead, there are new experiences to enjoy in this film, ones which are relevant to the particular needs of the main characters in MP Returns. Often, these build on something familiar to the original film and take it in an unexpectedly delightful new direction, such as when the children
“pop into” a pottery piece in their nursery: a callback that provides viewers with a particularly amazing bit of new animation while also teaching us something about the children and moving the particulars of the plot forward.
I also thought it was important that the father (grown-up Michael Banks) in this story has a very different relationship with his children than George Banks did in the original. This, in turn affects the lessons that the children need to learn. Still, there are very nostalgic and appropriately-placed ties to the original that are thoughtfully and powerfully utilized. (Tiny spoilers: these include, but are not limited to, a certain green kite and an appearance by Dick van Dyke.)
4. The Music
Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in music or musicals. That said, here are some of my most important criteria for “a good musical:”
- Does the music take me on an emotional journey that mirrors the plot? Does it have me grinning like an idiot, crying, and toe-tapping within the span of 2-3 hours?
- Do the songs get lodged in my brain AND (see 3.)
- Do I continue to listen to the soundtrack despite the fact that the songs have already been in my head on loop for days? (?!)
This movie definitely ticks those boxes for me, from the tear-inducing ballad, “Where the Lost Things Go,” to the bouncy, joyful “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” I’ve been singing, listening, dancing to, and feeling emotional about the songs since seeing the film. I also appreciated the way that lyricist, Scott Wittman, translated the tone and plot of the story so seamlessly into music while the composer, Marc Shaiman, channeled the feeling of the original Mary Poppins’ music into a fresh new score.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that there was very little argument in my brain against this movie while watching it. My heart was definitely NOT screaming (as I’d feared): “You are not Mary! I feel wrong about this!” Instead, I found myself completely delighted by the music, the acting, the story, the sets, and the special effects More amazing to me was the fact that everything about Mary Poppins Returns struck a balance that made it fun to watch as a new experience but also easy to feel sentimental about, as if it had been there all along. Like Mary Poppins herself, I think that Mary Poppins Returns ultimately succeeds by doling out just the proper proportions of sensibility and magic.