I didn’t like Saving Mr. Banks. I know I’m in the minority, but I found Emma Thompson’s portrayal of P.L. Travers to be completely insufferable. Yes, I know the real Travers was a total bitch to work with, and it’s hard (even with all of Emma Thompson’s talent) to make such a consistently unlikeable character into a protagonist worth following. Even so, I don’t feel that the character developed enough to make her into anything tolerable. Also, no way am I getting on board with a lead character who deliberately and unapologetically insults a wounded WWII veteran for his war injury. But I digress.
I bring up Saving Mr. Banks because it was a high-profile awards season Disney release that showed the mainstream public what massive drama happened behind the scenes of Mary Poppins. Walt Disney Pictures itself came out and admitted to everyone that P.L. Travers was vehemently reluctant to surrender any degree of control over her creation. We know why Mary Poppins meant so much to Travers, we know that she considered Mary Poppins to be the embodiment of tough love in a world that coddles children with sweet lies (like those the Disney empire was built on, for example), we know she hated the thought of musical numbers in any film adaptation, and she went to her grave with a violent loathing of those animated penguins.
But with all respect, God rest her soul, Travers lost that battle decades ago. Mary Poppins is still an immortal classic. For over 50 years, the movie and its namesake character have enchanted countless children of all ages, and every scene is overflowing with cinematic magic that hasn’t faded in the slightest. The music, the animation, the effects, the characters, everything about the movie has brightened countless childhoods and helped so many through dark times.
On the other hand, the movie is also a cash cow used for the cynical purpose of churning out untold millions of dollars, even as Walt Disney himself and P.L. Travers (under protest) used the film to sort through their own respective daddy issues. And that’s not me saying that, that’s the Walt Disney Company saying that. That is exactly the narrative they themselves crafted in a big-budget wide release (starring Tom freaking Hanks as the first man with Disney’s blessing to ever portray Walt Disney himself!) that came out only five years ago. And they based it — however loosely — on settled historical record!
But of course, that’s all ancient history. And without P.L. Travers or her son to raise any kind of objection (for they are both safely dead), it looks like the time has finally come for Disney to turn toward Mary Poppins in their relentless mad quest for the established property they can recycle into an Alice in Underland-level hit.
(Reminder: Alice in Underland was eight goddamn years ago.)
The good news is that Disney didn’t come out with a direct remake. Instead, Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel that picks up several years after the original, when the kids of the first movie have grown into adults (played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer). Christopher Robin tried something similar, and that worked out all right.
The bad news is… come on, it was right there in the title of Saving Mr. Banks. Mary Poppins wasn’t there to save the kids, she was there to save their father. And by the end of the last movie, he had been well and truly redeemed. So what are we doing for the sequel? Why does Mary Poppins come back? Are we really just rehashing the same old story, with Mary Poppins saving Jane and Michael Banks as she redeemed their father before them?
Well… yes and no.
Yes, Jane Banks is following in her mother’s footsteps as a revolutionary for the underrepresented, this time spreading flyers and holding protests for the labor unions. As for Michael Banks, he’s gone to work for the same Fidelity Fiduciary Bank that employed his father (and his father before him) and he’s become too caught up in his own work to properly look after his kids. So of course Mary Poppins (now played by an incandescent Emily Blunt) comes in to look after Michael’s children, giving them the wisdom and confidence to help save their father from himself.
So the superficial details are all still there, but with significant differences. To start with, of course the interplay between the two Banks siblings is nothing like the relationship between their two married parents. Additionally, while Jane and Michael have convinced themselves that the more fantastic events of the previous film never really happened (flights of childhood fantasy and all that), they still have fond memories of Mary Poppins and they put up with way more of her crap than Mr. Banks ever would have.
But easily the most important difference is this: At the start of the original film, Mr. Banks was happy. Banks was thoroughly and totally convinced that his life was perfect and everything was in place, never realizing that everything he had was built on a house of cards until Mary Poppins came in and toppled it all. By comparison, this movie opens with the crystal clear message that Michael is only barely hanging on by a thread.
Michael’s wife died about a year ago (Disney movie, duh), and he’s still deep in mourning. Additionally, Michael’s all but completely given up his true passion as a painter as he buries himself in work at the bank to make ends meet. So his children (John, Annabel, and Georgie; respectively played by Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies, and Joel Dawson) have had to learn how to take care of themselves in place of their absent parents, thus prematurely growing up (though Georgie is quite noticeably less mature than his two siblings, thus leading to a conflict that was never there between Jane and Michael as kids). In spite of all this, Michael is no longer able to pay a loan he had to take out and is thus in danger of losing his house unless he can find the necessary money in a few short days.
In summary, Michael and his family need help far more badly than Mr. Banks and his family ever did in the first movie. The dead wife brings more pathos, the potential loss of the house means higher stakes, and the deadline for paying off the loan is a ticking clock — something the original movie never had, aside from a vague mention of changing winds. We’ve even got a villain in this movie: the bank president, gamely played by Colin Firth.
This movie has a plot and it has dramatic tension, far more so than the previous film did. It makes total sense for the sequel to do that, if the intention was to go bigger and better. Unfortunately, it’s also probably the biggest mistake this movie made.
Think back to the first movie. Did we really need that tea party on the ceiling? Was the whole animated sequence really crucial to the plot? Why was Admiral Boom even there? When you get right down to it, so much of the original movie was made of songs and sequences that go nowhere and accomplish nothing, but they impart a sense of childlike whimsy that was central to the film’s message and its appeal.
This movie does something similar. In fact, it does a lot of things similar. In place of telekinetically cleaning up their room, the kids are introduced to Mary Poppins through a bath that takes them to the bottom of the ocean. In place of an animated tea party and horse race, we get an animated carriage ride and a full-on circus, followed by a harrowing nightmarish chase sequence. In place of Uncle Albert and his floating tea party on the ceiling, we get Mary Poppins’ eccentric cousin (Topsy, played by Meryl Streep) whose house rotates upside down once a month. Instead of Bert leading his fellow chimney sweeps in a massive rendition of “Step In Time”; we’ve got Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and his fellow lamplighters in a gigantic, sprawling, epically scaled number called “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”. Where the previous film had an old lady feeding the birds, we’ve got freaking Angela Lansbury playing a balloon vendor and singing the film’s closing number.
This is a conundrum we’re seeing all too often in cinema nowadays: How to stay close enough to the source material that it’s recognizably within the same universe, but distant enough to work as its own movie and not a shameless ripoff. It’s a tough needle to thread, but honestly, the filmmakers managed it quite well. While each individual scene was clearly and recognizably inspired by the prequel, the filmmakers did a solid job of making it their own. As far as impossible situations go, the solution presented here is not bad at all.
Likewise, there’s the matter of the music. The Sherman Brothers were grandmasters, responsible for some of the most iconic songs in pop culture, many of which came directly from the original classic Mary Poppins soundtrack. Nobody could ever hope to exceed or even match that level of quality.
I’ve seen Pete’s Dragon (the crappy original, I mean — not the criminally underrated remake), so I know what a third-rate imitation of the Sherman Brothers looks and sounds like. This isn’t it. This is a second-rate imitation, brought to us by the Tony-winning team that wrote the Broadway musical adaptation of Hairspray, clearly written with all the effort and passion and talent they could bring to bear. These songs may not be perfect, but they’re the best we could’ve possibly hoped for.
(Side note: What are the contenders for Best Original Song this year? Could Marc Shaiman win an Oscar and get the full EGOT with this one? Come on, let him have it.)
But here’s the problem: The original movie could get away with so many pointless yet fantastic sequences because we didn’t have anything better to do. We never had a ticking clock to worry about. In this movie, I’d see the characters standing on their heads with Meryl Streep or watching ten thousand leeries a-leaping and I’d think “Yeah, this is fun. Isn’t your house about to get repossessed? You should get on that.” Conversely, I’d see the kids in a life-or-death chase sequence or the daring climactic stunt sequence and wonder if I was still watching a Mary Poppins movie.
(Side note: To repeat, Christopher Robin is proof that the filmmakers could have given us a fantastic movie that gracefully honors its source material while keeping the stakes low and intimate. It’s a shame the two movies came out in the same year, or Rob Marshall and company could’ve taken some great notes.)
Speaking of which, Emily Blunt absolutely nails this role. She crushes it hard. I mean that as no small amount of praise, given how universally known and beloved Julie Andrews was in the role, but Blunt takes the mantle and wears it like it’s nothing. The costume design, alas, is much less consistent.
To be clear, the costumes in this movie all look amazing. Sandy Powell is a costume designer par excellence and every single piece of her work here is utterly superlative. In the case of Mary Poppins, her work outfits are instantly iconic and perfectly representative of the character. But in the more fantastic segments, well…
I’ll put it to you this way. Exhibit A: This is ______ on a jolly holiday. Exhibit B: This is _____ singing underwater. Exhibit C: This is _____ on her way to the Royal Doulton Music Hall. Exhibit D: This is _____ in her splashy musical number about first impressions. Now, imagine seeing these pictures removed from all other context. Which of them look like prim and proper Mary Poppins, and which of them look like Emily Blunt in a glamorous outfit? Which ones would have looked out of place and out of character if Julie Andrews had worn them in the original film?
Then we have Lin-Manuel Miranda. To be clear, I love Lin-Manuel Miranda. Who doesn’t? It’s like every word written and spoken from his genius mind is another reason to stay optimistic in this crappy, depressing world. He can act, he can sing, he can dance, he can rap, he can tell a joke, he can break your heart… pretty much the only thing he can’t do is pretend to be anything other than Puerto Rican.
I know Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent was famously awful, but to see it on Lin-Manuel Miranda… seriously, why? The minute Disney brought him on this project (as they damn well should have, and the movie as a whole is better for it), they should’ve rebuilt the whole character to play to his strengths and not try to shoehorn him into some contrived, watered-down Bert rerun.
As for the child actors, they get full marks across the board. It is so incredibly rare to find even one actor that young with that much talent, I have no idea how the filmmakers were able to find three. Kudos are also due to Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer, who turn in solid work as the Banks children all grown up.
Julie Walters is perfectly fine taking over the role of Ellen, ditto for David Warner as Admiral Boom. Colin Firth and Meryl Streep are having the time of their lives playing to the cheap seats. Then we’ve got Dick Van Dyke as the deus ex machina and the aforementioned Angela Lansbury, both of whom prove conclusively that they haven’t lost a step. The filmmakers even brought in Karen Dotrice — the original Jane Banks herself! — for a sweet blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance.
I only have one real problem with Mary Poppins Returns, but it’s a doozy: The filmmakers didn’t have the guts to try and scale back the plot. The original movie did fine without a cartoonishly evil villain or any outlandish action sequences, and there’s no reason this movie needed them either. If the goal was to go bigger, they already had the dead mother and the ticking clock to provide that, to say nothing of how huge and elaborate the rest of the film was.
The performances are all great fun, the production design is extraordinary, the effects are seamless, the dance sequences are beautifully elaborate, the songs are all perfectly fine, and the themes of the original film are even more focused and better utilized here. We’re never going to get a film as timeless and iconic as the original, but the cast and crew put so much passion and effort and talent into this movie that the end result is close enough for now.
But here’s the big question: In such a massively crowded moviegoing season — with Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse, Bumblebee, Aquaman, and so many huge crowd-pleasing blockbusters in theaters right now, to say nothing of Welcome to Marwen, Vice, Mary Queen of Scots, and all the other awards contenders out right now or coming in the next few days — is this movie really worth your time and money? Is this really worth a big screen viewing, against all the others competing for your time and money right now?
Well… yes. I’d say yes. Especially if you’ve already seen all those others, then hell yes.