Why the Enduring Myth of Mary Poppins Didn’t Need an Update

Pop Culture

Why the Enduring Myth of Mary Poppins Didn’t Need an Update

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

As a child, when I found myself in trouble, I looked skywards. The gods were unreliable. Mary Poppins, I felt wasn’t. She came from the clouds. Her umbrella spoke out of turn. Holding a mirror, a lamp, and a hat stand, her bag seemed to have no bottom. When she sang, I’d listen, but so would the birds on screen. Mary Poppins made my world come alive. I really was so thrilled Disney was bringing her back.  

But after watching Mary Poppins Returns, my nostalgia is trying to resurrect the Mary Poppins that Disney so brutally killed. The storytelling, let’s face it, could never have been as sharp. The special effects would never have been as surprising, and more importantly, perhaps, I would have never been as wide-eyed. Directed by Rob Marshall, Mary Poppins Returns ticks far too many boxes. Yet the box it gets all wrong is Poppins’ appeal.

My father bought us the Mary Poppins VHS tape in 1989. I was six and my sister was ten. Though we were watching the film 25 years after it had released, both of us remember being thrilled. More than Moby Dick and Robin Hood, Mary Poppins would globalise us all too completely. London, for me, was always Big Ben and a red double-decker bus. But after Mary Poppins, it was a city of chimneys, of kites, nannies, and kind constables. For years, I wanted to live on Cherry Tree Lane.

The film’s plot is easy to summarise. Mr Banks, a crotchety banker and Mrs Banks, a mostly absent activist, desperately need a nanny for their mischievous children, Jane and Michael. And Mary Poppins descends from the heavens to take up this position. She cleans the nursery by clicking her fingers and takes Jane and Michael on many an adventure. They jump into paintings that are drawn on pavements. They laugh their way up to the ceiling to have tea. My sister and I were wonderstruck.

Raising children is never an easy business. Parents need all the help they can get. There is a reason why my father would once think of our Mary Poppins VHS tape as a sound investment. Transfixed for the 140 minutes that it played, my sister and I would be out of his and my mother’s way.

Back then, I usually wanted to ruin my sister’s dollhouse with my fire engine and she wanted to humiliate my He-Man with her Barbie figurines. Though we bickered over the gender of our toys and the stories we said about them, Mary Poppins was a narrative that appealed to us both. My sister, I figured, saw the film through the eyes of a giggly Jane, while I saw it as a slightly more defiant Michael.

Mary Poppins made my world come alive.

Mary Poppins also polished our enunciation of words. My sister and I would mimic Julie Andrews saying the words “suspicious” and “extraordinary”. We’d then spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” backwards, convinced it was a word in some dictionary.

I suppose what had both of us was that Mary Poppins was never heavy-handed. She believed children could be disciplined even while they were having fun. It was only after seeing the film over a dozen times did I realise that Mary Poppins never descended from the skies to correct Jane and Michael. She was there to save Mr Banks from a life of stodgy joylessness. It’s the adults who need to be reminded of levity. The kids are really alright.

In Mary Poppins Returns, a similar dynamic is at play, albeit with an update. Twenty-five years older, Michael is now the widowed father of three children who finds it hard to pay the bills. Trying hard to negotiate the absence of money and their mother, the children too have little time for wonder. Even when they play, they seem grown up.

When Mary Poppins took Jane and Michael all around London, you discovered the city with them: London is both, marvellous and intimidating. On the other hand, Michael’s kids seem so self-assured that you know nothing could ever beat them. When their nanny isn’t looking, they quickly go back to whispering like adults, hatching plans to save their father from penury. Kids, the film implies, need to be heroes too.

Julie Andrews, for her part, always had your back, even though she’d never seem overtly maternal or protective. She didn’t control the material world – only fashioned its elements. In Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Blunt, however, can do a bit of everything. She can stop the Big Ben from chiming. She can put an end to everyone’s woes. When the need arises, she can play matchmaker too. You sometimes tire of saying, “Mary’s got this!”

But the myth of Mary Poppins didn’t need any updating. The nanny said so herself. Taking out a plant from her bottomless bag, she had looked at it and marvelled, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” I have that VHS tape. I know just what she means.