Summary: Remakes and sequels to classic films are valuable mirrors. They show as nothing else can how we have changed as a people. Mary Poppins Returns does so practically perfectly.
Mary Poppins Returns skillful recreates a dead art form from America’s past. They sing. They dance. The animators and CGI artists skillfully produce magic. The cinematography is beautiful (it’s what Hollywood does best). The writers power Returns with nostalgia, since it has no soul. Perhaps because America has lost its soul.
Emily Blunt wonderfully portrays the Poppins from Traver’s books – more eccentric than loving. Her voice and charisma carries the film. The children are charming, and precocious (as usual in modern films). The other actors are adequate. The evil banker (Colin Firth) is cardboard, unlike the scarily realistic bankers of the Disney original. The father, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is, as usual, weak and feckless. Which points to a big difference between the films, rooted in the difference between America in 1964 and 2018.
Mary Poppins described the spiritual redemption of a father, George Banks, aided by Mary Poppins and his children (the mother was pretty absent, involved in her career as a social reformer). His recovery began with an act of self-assertion – brass balls in action – by confronting the cold board of bankers. There was nothing at stake, except a father’s pride in his children. The cost was high, as such things are so often in life. But redemption is infectious (who knew?), producing a genuine surprise ending. Most readers will not have seen, or remember, the ending. Instead of spoiling it, I urge you to watch the film.
Returns is empty. Poppins does some magic. The father is weak and despondent at the start. He is rich and weak at the end. The family is poor and sad at the start. They are rich and happy at the end. Found money effortlessly solves their problems. The villain gets his comeuppance. Dick van Dyke (age 92) reprises his role in Poppins as the redeemed banker. That few minutes provides the one moment of genuine life in the film, a distant echo from a bygone age.
Feminists will see no bad gender stereotypes in Returns. The mother is dead, so there is no pro-natalist influence on the young audience. The women are all smart, strong, competent – and single. They are role models for the 21st century.
Returns also shows an important difference between Hollywood productions in 1964 and today. The original overflowed with witty dialog. There is little in Returns, mostly exposition. The film lurches from one musical set piece to another with little between (much as Lord of the Rings was stripped down to the battle scenes). This makes Returns feel like an empty treat – like cotton candy. The songs and choreography are fun but forgettable. It is a film for a shallow America, a people disconnected from their history (which our reformers despise) and values (which our reformers also despise).
Children will be taken to it by their parents (who are Disney’s customers). I wonder what they will think of it. I doubt it will stay with them as the original did with the Boomers. I wonder what will be the films that influence these children’s lives. For better or ill.
For more information
Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- “Passengers” – see it because the critics hate it.
- See Solo, a Star Wars film that says much about America.
- Incredibles 2, a Father’s Day gift from Disney.
- See “Constantine” – challenging your ideas about God and the good.
Go back in time to see the originals
See the original Disney film:
Mary Poppins (1964).
For something different, read Dr. P. L. Travers’ original Mary Poppins in the first four of her Mary Poppins books. She wrote eight books from 1934 to 1988.