Why We Need Mary Poppins Back Again Now More Than Ever
Mary Poppins opens in the clouds, and it never really comes down. From the titular nanny’s cloudy perch, we follow her adventures and get a look at the Banks children. Thus begins one of Disney’s crowning achievements. The film, which would go on to win Julie Andrews an Oscar, is a lightning bolt and a ray of sunshine. It’s daring and creative, but not always in ways that make your head hurt. It’s the kind of movie that we don’t get enough of today in that it’s buoyant and whimsical without any sense of irony.
The film’s sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, could very easily be a cynical cash grab. After all, we live in an era of sequels and reboots. The return of iconic characters has become commonplace. It’s the only way large studios can guarantee eyeballs. By her very nature, though, Mary Poppins is well-suited for a return in 2018.
The original Mary Poppins came out on the precipice of massive historical changes. The Vietnam War had just begun, and President Kennedy had been assassinated just one year prior. Every generation feels like they’re living through dark times, but those living through 1964 were right. Enter Mary Poppins, a film set in England 50 years before any of those events took place.
Mary Poppins Speaks To A Moment
Mary Poppins is obviously not about the tumult of the ’60s. It’s set in the 1910s, which was in and of itself an era of tremendous change. There, we follow the Banks children, who are looked after largely by their nanny. Their father works for a bank, one which takes up the vast majority of his time. Their mother, meanwhile, is fighting for a woman’s right to vote. She sings a whole song about it. As a result, neither one of these parents have a ton of time for their kids.
On first glance, it may seem like the movie is pairing the bank and the women’s movement. After all, those are the reasons that Mr. and Mrs. Banks don’t have time for their children. And yet, it’s the bank that’s the subject of the most disdain. The mother’s involvement in the women’s movement does not seem to inhibit her ability to be a good mother. She’s much more available to her children than their father is.
Mary Poppins is many things, but it is not subtle. The name itself — Banks — exists to focus the audience’s attention on where Mr. Banks’s energy is going, and what he’s ignoring as a result. Mary Poppins is skeptical of banking, and of those who get sucked into working in that industry. In this world, the bank is a cold, distant place. It’s harsh, but not in the way the titular nanny sometimes is. It has none of the warmth that underlies everything Mary Poppins does.
One of the strangest, prettiest songs in Mary Poppins has almost nothing to do with the plot. “Feed the Birds” is about an old woman who sells breadcrumbs to passersby as a way to earn an income. The song’s lyrics are about kindness, and how easy it is to show a little.
“Come feed the little birds,” Julie sings. “Show them you care.” This song isn’t about anything, at least in terms of the narrative we’ve been watching up to this point. Its sole purpose is to get the Banks children to sleep. Even so, it’s one of the most beautiful melodies in the movie.
“Feed the Birds” explicitly gets at the specific brand of kindness that Mary Poppins shows the Banks children. Over the course of the movie, she takes them on a wild ride. They float on ceilings, enter chalk drawings, and dance with an alarming number of chimney sweeps. Being around Mary Poppins’s magic seems really fun. Being around Mary Poppins is not always such a joy, though.
She scolds the Banks children when they are rude, and disciplines them when it’s necessary. Mary Poppins does not make these children’s lives perfect or give them everything they’ve ever wanted. She just pays attention. She’s there to teach them and help them and bring them joy. She’s also there to remind their parents how important that is.
There was, of course, another movie about Mary Poppins just a few years ago. Saving Mr. Banks was about Walt Disney‘s struggle to get the film made, and the opposition the character’s creator P.L. Travers had to his adaptation. As flawed as that movie is, its name still rings true.
Why We Need Mary Poppins Again Now More Than Ever
The Banks children are not the ones Mary Poppins comes to save. She comes to save their father. As rote as that observation might be, it gets at the heart of what Mary Poppins can do for adults watching it today. These same adults are the ones most likely to see the return of Mary Poppins as a cash grab.
There’s no denying that part of the reason Mary Poppins Returns exists is to make boatloads of money. It’s designed to force nostalgic parents to take their kids to the movies. And yet, the return of this character could be exactly what these parents need.
Cynicism is an abundant force today. It’s both easier and more exhausting to distrust everything than it would be to have some faith in anything. I’ll say this: I have faith in Mary Poppins Returns to make me laugh, and maybe cry a little too. The original is all about how hard it is to focus on what’s important. Hopefully, the sequel will help us drown out some of the noise.