A spoonful of nostalgia isn’t enough to make the narrative go down. The highly anticipated Mary Poppins Returns hits theatres this week. Unfortunately, this film gets lost in nostalgia, neglecting the need to tell a new story. Instead, we get more than half a movie full of frivolity that lacks any coherent meaning or substance that is more concerned with hitting the same plot beats with similar songs at the same moments in this version as it was with the original. Visually, the movie is flawless and the animation sequences were a welcomed visit from the past. Reminded me of, if the animation from Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Mary Poppins got together, this is what you’d get. When creating a sequel that doubles as a remake, connections to the original are important but should not be at the diegetic forefront. Mary Poppins Returns exists in a gray area that is neither a sequel nor a remake. Had Mary Poppins Returns been a full-on sequel or remake, then perhaps the narrative would have faired better. As it stands, it sits uncomfortably in the middle and suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Perhaps this version is lacking in critical value and complex characters, but it ranks highly in entertainment value. There isn’t anything particularly memorable about it except for the special appearances by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, but the movie offers a couple hours of whimsical fun.
In depression-era London, the Banks family faces one of the greatest hardships a family can face–losing their home. Compounding the present state of affairs, the family is also coping with the recent loss of Michael Banks’ wife and mother of their three children. With help from the family’s longtime maid/cook Ellen and Michael’s sister Jane, the family hopes for the best while planning for the worst. With only five days until the house is repossessed, Michael remembers that his father left him shares of that infamous bank from his childhood; but when certificates of shares in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank turn out to be missing, all hope seems lost until Michael, his children, and Jane get the surprise of a lifetime. Mary Poppins returns! Michael and Jane’s beloved nanny from their childhood returns to look after the family during this crisis. In true Mary Poppins fashion and accompanied by the lamplighter Jack, she whisks Michael’s children into a fun-filled adventure through the streets of London and into a world of imagination.
At the bedrock of the original are these lessons that must be learned. In many ways, Mary Poppins was a teacher to both Jane, Michael, and George. Although the lessons varied by character, they had one common denominator: life’s priorities. And there were no true villains–that is–evil or villainous out of malcontent or cruelty. And the songs had strong meaning, not just fun, creative lyrics to a show-stopping accompaniment. Furthermore, there was strong character development in the central characters. The character arcs of George and the kids were measurable. Even Mr. Dawes Sr. demonstrated measurable change. There are the elements of substance that make the original a timeless classic that transcends the decades and generations to remain a beloved film. Mary Poppins Returns fails to deliver any of these elements to the audience. Instead, chooses to get lost in the nostalgia of the original. Relying on the abstract of nostalgia to carry this remake-sequel.
While Michael’s lesson is clearly to learn to be a child again, his children learn the lesson to be quasi adults by teaching their father and working to solve the family’s financial crisis. Those two idea are in direct contradiction. Mary Poppins is no longer acting like a teacher but she seems more concerned with being an actual nanny moreso than the governess that was the original. If the lesson to be learned was to have the imagination or hope of a child, then that should have been taught, not two different lessons in direct contrast. George Banks may have been had his priorities in the wrong place, but he was not evil, nor was Mr. Dawes Sr. evil–he too had his priorities all askew. In Mary Poppins Returns, Colin Firth’s Mr. Wilkins is downright cruel for no reason other than simplistic greed. Simple motivators are a good place to start but should be developed to be more complex to add to the conflict. Firth’s character is completely uninteresting.
Talk about memorable songs in the original; I imagine you can recite most lyrics by memory, unlike this version with lyrics so convoluted and complex that they are largely forgettable. At the time of listening, the lyrics are poignant and work at the given emotional or plot beat, but then they are mostly forgotten. The songs in this one seem to exist only for the amusement of the audience. And the vaudeville number. Let’s talk about that for a moment. For starters, I love Mary’s wig that she borrowed from Catherine Zeta Jone’s Chicago costume. The music and lyrics in that number were incredibly entertaining–but–these same lyrics are quite risque in places. I was shocked that they were in a movie aimed at kids (despite the PG rating). And comparing the songs from the original to the ones in this version, each and every song in Mary Poppins Returns sounds similar AND comes at precisely the same beat as they did in the original. Each and every song in this one is an answer to the counterpart in the original. With one conspicuous exception, there is no equivalent for the Sister Suffragette. With Jane’s heavy involvement in workers’ rights (much like her mother’s women’s rights), it seems odd that she was not given a song since were were giving everyone else songs equivalent to the original. Yes, I am aware that Sister Suffragette is not in the Broadway musical, but it should have had a place in Mary Poppins Returns.
Structurally, the first two acts are all over the place. Fortunately, the film finishes with a strong third act. Everything seems so forced, rushed. Pacing matched the original. It’s as if the emotional beats and plot points from the original were mapped out and a “new” story was conformed to fit the old diegesis. There are even moments that can be completely removed from the story and not effect the outcome. For example, the entire Meryl Street scene has no impact on the realization of the narrative. Screenwriting 101 teaches us that each and every scene should point the audience toward the end–each scene should culminate in something important. Think of each scene as a paragraph in a larger story and each line of dialogue as a sentence in a larger paragraph. Each paragraph has a beginning, middle, and end; just like a story has a beginning, middle, and end. If a scene does not advance the plot, then it should be reworked or removed. We never revisit the cracked pot or truly embrace the idea of giving oneself a new perspective from which to view life. The song is fun, but that is all I can say about that scene. And there are other scenes in the movie that do little to advance the plot, but this is the most obvious one.
The movie is not without its entertainment value. If you are looking to escape reality for a couple of hours, then you are in the right place. You will be delighted with the whimsy and magic of this story. Perhaps the screenplay is poorly conceived, but everything else (from a technical perspective and performance perspective) works very well. If you enter the film with a heavy heart or some degree of sadness, the movie will help you forget your troubles for a moment and put a smile on your face and maybe even a tear or two in your eyes. Emily Blunt may not be a perfect Mary Poppins but she is practically perfect as the beloved nanny.
Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!
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