By Kahini Iyer Jan. 04, 2019
If the chief villain of Mary Poppins Returns is the big bad adult world, then the cutthroat bankers are its henchmen, and the dancing lamplighters its underdog heroes. The film illustrates the impact that collective action can have, even in the face of powerful institutions.
uch like its titular character, Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns – the sequel to the 1964 film, Mary Poppins – comes as a delightful surprise. At a time when multiplexes are flooded with hand-me-down refurbished tales that rarely live up to their predecessors, it’s only natural to be concerned about an homage to a universally beloved film. But have no fear: Emily Blunt (reprising Julie Andrews’ turn as Poppins) holds her own as a frolicsome iteration of the world’s most famous nanny.
Mary Poppins Returns comes with a few updates. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is no longer a Victorian child; he’s a widower with three kids and a foreclosure looming over his house. The kicker? The bankers threatening him are from Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where his stone-hearted father used to work, and where Michael himself is a part-time teller. His affectionate sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is now a labour activist, rallying post-Depression London workers to demand equal rights – a nod to her mother’s Suffragette protests. She also drops everything to help rescue her childhood home.
Enter Mary Poppins, floating in on her umbrella to save the day. Even when the thin premise of Mary Poppins Returns overstays its runtime, aided by forgettable musical numbers that are a far cry from the evergreen earworms we know and love, its charm rarely flags.
If the chief villain of this Mary Poppins universe is once again the big bad adult world, then the cutthroat bankers are its henchmen, and the dancing lamplighters its underdog heroes. When Michael and Jane realise that their father has left them valuable shares in Fiduciary Financial, the bank’s president, William Wilkins (Colin Firth) is gracious and accommodating – until they leave. Like the Wall Street giants who decimated the global economy in 2008, Wilkins tries to maximise profits by preying on homeowners left vulnerable after the Great Depression by using the facade of a powerful bank. He’s exactly what we imagine when we think of an upstanding authority figure, and that’s what makes him even more dangerous: Michael feels so at ease with Wilkins, that he doesn’t believe his own children when they try to expose him as a fraud.
Mary Poppins dancing with a troupe of heroic lamplighters. Image credit: Walt Disney Co.
Mary Poppins dancing with a troupe of heroic lamplighters.
Image credit: Walt Disney Co.
Of course, Mary Poppins put up its own benign brand of resistance against social conventions. The 1964 film painted bankers as the worst kind of grown-ups, who care only for money and see no value in the simpler joys that Mary advocates: flying kites, imagination, and relationships. And where the modern Mary has lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) by her side, Andrews’ Mary had charming chimney-sweep, Bert (Dick Van Dyke), who was as honourable and kind as he was low in social status. It’s easy to forget how the equitable friendship between a genteel Victorian nanny, her wealthy charges, and the local chimney-sweep – the equivalent of a sanitation worker in India – was quietly revolutionary in the magical world of Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins Returns has even more pronounced undertones of radicalism, bringing it closer to the original 1934 series by PL Travers, a non-conformist reporter-turned-author, who famously hated the Disneyfication of her books. The sequel is still replete with animated characters and happy endings, but its staunch critique of capitalism, as well as its empowered heroines, mark a return to the values of Travers.
Mary Poppins and Jack at the Royal Doulton Music Hall Image credit: Walt Disney Co.
Mary Poppins and Jack at the Royal Doulton Music Hall
Image credit: Walt Disney Co.
Far from the prim and proper Mary Poppins we know, Blunt’s version throws off her distinctly upper-class mannerisms to put on a Cockney-tinged vaudeville show with Jack, skirting the line between propriety and indecency – in the spirit of performance, but also of equality between the two. Underneath the vintage trappings, there’s a dash of Depression-era women’s liberation in both Mary and Jane, as they take charge of the family’s predicament like and continue the feminist legacy of Mrs Banks. Even Kate, Michael’s deceased wife, plays a role despite never being seen: she, like most women, used to handle the household finances, and her passing has left him helpless.
Mary Poppins Returns has even more pronounced undertones of radicalism, bringing it closer to the original 1934 series by PL Travers, a non-conformist reporter-turned-author, who famously hated the Disneyfication of her books.
But ultimately, it is the lamplighters, led by Jack and Mary, who leap forward to save the Banks home and stick it to Wilkins. It’s an illustration of the power that collective action can have, even against an institution whose job is to crush the working class under its heel. And yet, there is no trace of ra-ra radicalism in the Poppins utopia. There is no need, because every “good guy” readily accepts that deeply entrenched barriers of class, money, and status, are secondary to individual humanity. In a movie where people have bottomless bags and a bathtub with a direct route to the seaside, that might be the most impossible thing of all.