- “If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition . . . “
- “. . . rosy cheeks, no warts, play games, all sorts . . .”
- “You must be kind, you must be witty, very sweet and fairly pretty . . .”
- “Take us on outings, give us treats, sing songs, bring sweets . . .”
- “Never be cross or cruel, never give us castor oil or gruel . . .”
- “Love us as a son and daughter, and never smell of barley water . . .”
- “Hurry, Nanny! Many thanks. Sincerely,”
- A Mary Poppins Returns Review
- ***Spoiler Alert***
- ***end of spoilers***
- Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars
- Continuing The Conversation
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“If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition . . . “
When you go to a Disney movie, an immediate feeling comes over your very being. Because you know you are going to the Disney movie to take pleasure in the whole experience. Whether it’s through years of brilliant filmmaking, or a love for the man who put his heart and soul into making entertainment for the whole family, the Disney Brand resonates. This feeling and expectations almost double when it comes to the climax of Disney’s film career in the movie Mary Poppins.
There is no film in the Disney cannon which resonates with the kind of passion than the brilliant film with the magical nanny. This makes the new addition to the Disney archive in general, and Mary Poppins one in particular, so much more important. Mary Poppins returned, which has all Disneyphiles on edge, or jumping for joy. I’m telling you, do not worry. Have a cheery disposition, as Disney brings back the beloved tale for at least one more go around in Mary Poppins Returns.
“. . . rosy cheeks, no warts, play games, all sorts . . .”
It’s so hard to take up a review of Mary Poppins Returns without a discussion of the film which preceded it. Mary Poppins was the tale of the Banks children struggling with the father who has become the prototypical absent father, more involved with work than with life inside the Banks household. What makes it quasi-curious is that it seemed to have an equally absent mother, more interested in women’s causes than in the life of her children.
Mary Poppins comes in to remind the parents of their responsibility to their children. But it’s never about beating them over the head about it. It’s bringing them to the realization that childhood is such a small and quick portion of our children’s lives. Our ability to connect with our children and help mold their outcomes is limited. And when we cannot step in and be the parents we need to be, our children are left alone to face the harsh realities of the world on their own.
“You must be kind, you must be witty, very sweet and fairly pretty . . .”
Julie Andrews unforgettably portrayed Mary Poppins. What many may not realize is that we almost missed Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins as she originally hoped to be cast in the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She had good reason to hope she would be in My Fair Lady as the rest of the cast of the play reprised their roles for the screen. She was the star of the play. (Miss Andrews got her revenge as she won Best Actress for her role in Mary Poppins, the only major Oscar My Fair Lady did not garner.) Her performance as Poppins would hang over the head of any actress who might take on the role in the future. She was iconic. And the role, as well as her role in the Sound of Music, would result in a movie musical renaissance in the 60s.
“Take us on outings, give us treats, sing songs, bring sweets . . .”
Dick Van Dyke took up the important side role of Bert to Julie Andrews’ Mary. Bert was a jack of all trades, even if what most people remember him for is the as the iconic chimneysweep. But to view Bert as merely a chimneysweep cheapens the tale. Because Bert also is a “one-man band”, a chalk artist, and a kite seller . . . among other things. But ultimately Bert symbolizes the guardian angels of the Banks’ children. He comes in to rescue them from the direst of circumstances. And when the children are lost and frightened the most, he appears to rescue them from the back alleys of London.
“Never be cross or cruel, never give us castor oil or gruel . . .”
There are some great small performances as well. You have the inimitable Ed Wynn. The interplay between he and Dick Van Dyke floating in the room through their laughter has brought more than a snort or guffaw to many a person. Glynis Johns takes her turn as the women’s rights advocates of the past, blazing the trail for women everywhere, but equally forgetting the children in their hour of need. Even Elsa Lancaster as the horrifically put off nanny Katie Nanna made an impression.
“Love us as a son and daughter, and never smell of barley water . . .”
But the key to Mary Poppins, as one can surmise and deftly told in the film Saving Mr. Banks, was the father and head of the household. For it was in P.L. Travers books that the father needed to change to connect and bond with the children. How much of that was autobiographical can be speculated. Regardless, the film doesn’t reach its apex until George Banks discovers the need to be a proper father to his children. This realization and ultimate conflict with his bosses are the true apexes of the film, at which the film resolves itself to the satisfaction of all (except maybe Mary Poppins herself), with a few twists and turns included.
“Hurry, Nanny! Many thanks. Sincerely,”
All of these elements make for movie magic. And would lead one to believe a fantastic sequel could be derived from the following books by Travers. Of course, this never did happen. One reason could have been Travers reception to how her work turned out on the screen. Maybe Travers liked what Disney did. It’s possible she hated it. Regardless, she never allowed another person to license one of her other works to make. The other reason, I suggest, was the death of Walt Disney himself. He was the one who lobbied to do Travers work in the first place. It took him nearly 25 years to get permission. Even if Travers trusted Disney enough to do another one, he might never have had the wherewithal to do another in the first place.
Regardless, they have been able to get permission to make another movie derived from the works now. Of course, Travers is not around to personally complain. And Disney himself is not around to make the movie, even if the studios which bare his name do. With this release, I believe Disney faces one big headwind to the tale, which at first blush might not be recognized. What I suggest, despite the title head, is that Bert has the most crucial role in the Mary Poppins film.
Yes, Mr. Banks himself accounts for the climax of the film. But he never arrives at the place before Bert makes him see his own foolishness. Because it is Bert and not Mary Poppins which clues him into the meaning behind so much. From that healthy helping of Sugar to go with the medicine to the marvelous excentricity of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Bert takes on the dad’s vision of himself and transforms it. It’s a moment of which Poppins was incapable, but Bert could step in . . . just in time.
Go back and you will see a million small moments like this, showing his centrality. For it is he who brings us to Cherry Tree Lane and the Banks’ family. He introduces us to Admiral Boom. In addition, he provides the memory for the chalk painting and Jolly Holiday. And as I have already told, the aforementioned Love to Laugh sequence with Ed Wynn. But most of all, he appears to be always around looking out for the children.
He knows of their excursion to the park and loss of their kite. And when the children are at their lowest, on the run from their father in central London, Bert arrives to save the day. He is there to rescue the characters from their foibles, and ultimately he is there to provide understanding to the parables of Mary Poppins. Mary helps us eliminate our pain. But Bert gets right in the difficulties with us and helps us work them out. Mary Poppins is a magic maker. But Bert is the healer.
This all brings us to Mary Poppins Returns and the possible misgivings one might have in such a reprise. With such a limited amount of actors willing to participate in musicals these days, the number of people who would take on such an iconic role would be limited. But replacing her role would be nothing in comparison to trying to recreate the magic, talent, and sensitivity of the character Bert, as Dick Van Dyke portrayed him (no matter what you think of his accent). Whatever the case, let us jump right in and do a Mary Poppins Returns review. (You can catch a further review of the soundtrack covering a bit of the storyline of Mary Poppins Returns here.)
A Mary Poppins Returns Review
We are greeted to the Mary Poppins Returns movie with a reintroduction to the setting of London and Cherry Tree Lane by Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda), the lamplighter, spreading light throughout the city. Once we enter the world of the Banks once again, we quickly realize that both Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) are grown up, with Michael having a family of his own. Unfortunately, Michael is now a widower, facing the death of his wife this past year. Both Debts and Greif have caught up with him. His muse seems to have slipped away; and chasing his art, as he might have done in the past, has been supplanted by other more mundane and reasonable tasks like returning to the Bank which so horrified him in the original Poppins film.
It is quickly evident that the children, Anabel (Pixie Davies) John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), feel responsible for their father. As a result, Anabel and John have had to take grown-up responsibility for their situation, as their dad struggles in this new life. Georgie experiences the loss most keenly as everyone, including his siblings, demands he grow up right away. This is why it is only appropriate that Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) would come down from the heavens via the kite Georgie tried to fly. In jumps Jack to the rescue, saving Georgie from flying away as Mary Poppins lands.
The Banks children, Jack, and Miss Poppins herself return to the Banks home to find both Jane and Michael ravaging through the files, looking out for something to protect the Banks home from foreclosure. It is at this point the children bring Mary back into the banks home, leaving both Jane and Michael mystified. In some ways, they had convinced themselves the craziness of their childhood represented the sincerest wishes of their heart back then. But nothing actually like that happened. The most important line in Mary Poppins Returns comes from Mary herself. She states she is once again here to help the Banks’ children. Oh, and the younger Banks children too. Knowing this we know that Poppins is there to actually save the adults once again from themselves as well as the kids. In fact, the adults are her major focus.
With Michael, the focus is more obvious. She needs him to once again see the wonder in the world as well as to recognize that death is not the finality of everything. For the loss he experienced of his wife presence, she is still present in each of his children. And so he shouldn’t let the realities of life affect the way he loves his children. With Jane, we realize she has buried herself much the way her mother had before her. She wishes to help people to unionize. While a laudable goal during the time period, it prevented her from being able to have a relationship with anyone. Jane needs to see that life is full of possibility and she is not resigned to a specific fate.
Poppins the goes about the transformation of the children. Just as she had in the past she directs her energies at the children. Although this time, they feel like they have more consequence. Because this time Mary needs to actually remind the children to not try to grow up so quickly. They need to be children as well, in order to spark their brains to do amazing things in the world.
I don’t wish to spoil everything. So, I won’t hit every plot point although you can glean a few from the soundtrack itself. What I will cover is the struggle this piece has with replacing Bert. Yes, they do give a nod and a wink to Bert. In fact, Dick Van Dyke does make a reappearance as Deux Ex Machina. But I will leave that for you to discover.
It is obvious from the beginning that Bert is missing. They wrote him out of the story by making him off traveling the world. (Curious for a guardian angel chimney sweep . . . but whatever.) It’s not that Jack is bad. Miranda actually does an amazing job of taking up the Bert mantle, teaching about the importance of your light shining in the world. But he cannot be Bert. I, for one, am grateful they did not try to make him be Bert. But without Bert, that voice of reason and understanding is lost. Jack is wonderful as a dancing partner, a troublemaker, a romantic possibility for someone (who I will not reveal here), and cheerleader for Mary Poppins. But he is neither the truth teller nor the explainer of lessons to anyone.
It is interesting how they try to compensate for this, leaving the moments of truth in Mary Poppins returns to someone else altogether. You can tell when these moments occur when the music they are playing corresponds to moments Bert has in the first film. I will try not to reveal much other than what you all know. The movie does end with a happier ever after, for everyone except Mary. And both Jane and Michael’s lives will be transformed once again, getting the best over a villainous Dawes. Mary, once done, will be remembered this time. Not only by Jack. This time, Jane and Michael let the audience know they will not forget Mary. We will not either.
***end of spoilers***
So let’s get to the crux of the matter. What do I think of Mary Poppins Returns? I have to say that I loved the film while recognizing some of the shortcomings. And what are these shortcomings? First, the film feels rushed. Mostly I do not complain about the length of a film. Frequently, films put in way more than is necessary. But try going back to the original Poppins. The film’s tempo seemed perfect. And it comes to two and a half hours of screen time. Not only that, take a look at the deleted number list on the Wikipedia site sometime. They easily could have had a three hour plus film if they left everything in.
With Mary Poppins Returns, it feels like we are being rushed from number to number and sequence to sequence. I would have liked a few more numbers, and a few quieter, non-singing moments to transform the good into the wonderous. Nevertheless, what we do experience is movie magic at its best.
Second, Bert is missing (even if the wooden leg named Smith joke isn’t). I love Miranda as Jack. And he does so well with the role. But that explainer of lessons and protector of those around his domain feels not quite as present. And because Mary is actually out with the children when they feel at their most lost, you never feel the despair which Jane and Michael felt in the first one. I feel like this lessens some of the impact of the piece.
Finally, the Mary we have appears far more vain and bawdy than she does in the original piece. I list it as a shortcoming because it makes Poppins a little less sympathetic as a character. However, for those whose love of Mary Poppins came from the children’s books, they will appreciate a revision which turns the character into more of what Travers originally imagined in the books. I liked that Poppins was prim and proper if a little bit unconventional. You might prefer this version.
And even though I found these shortcomings there are some marvelous smaller things they do which add to Mary Poppins Returns as well. They do an excellent job of paying homage to the previous film. In addition to casting Dick Van Dyke as a Dawes once again, they do add a few great cameos, including one which features an Elegant Woman. See if you can “sincerely” recognize her from the first film. They throw in some of the beautiful music from the original as well as a creation of an entirely new and beautiful song set to sing along to. And they do a good job covering the differences in such a way that makes a bit of sense, even if not quite as magnificent as the original.
If you want a film which pays homage to the original while at the same time creating a new world of wonder and magic to experience, you cannot do better than Mary Poppins Returns this holiday season. Go and check it out now. Or even do it a second and third time.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Continuing The Conversation
I had already reviewed the soundtrack by the time I saw Mary Poppins Returns. Hence, much of my thought about the film is carried within the soundtrack review. Much of what I had surmised came to pass. If you have seen the film, what was your favorite part of the movie? What would you have changed? And what do you think of writing Bert’s character out altogether? Also, what was your favorite song? (Honestly, I cannot even name one thinking about it now. I enjoy so many of the new ones I would have a hard time picking just one.) Share your feelings about Mary Poppins Returns in the comment section below.
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Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life