I’d never sworn in front of my kids, until our drive home from watching Mary Poppins Returns. The real Mary Poppins would have understood—in fact she might have done the same, had she seen what Disney did to one of children’s fiction’s classic characters and most poignant stories.
The important thing to recall from the original movie is that it’s not about the kids. Young Michael and Jane Banks aren’t the problem that Mary Poppins comes to fix—they are stand-ins for a young audience experiencing a story about what it means to be a parent.
Mr. Banks is the one who needs help. He is the overly disciplined, career-focused father with no time for his children. His life is turned upside-down by this strange new nanny who, in partnership with Bert the chimneysweep, guides him to the revelation that he has his priorities wrong. Bert has a lesson for the children too—but not about issues of their own. Are they really in trouble, he asks them, or is their dad? “Who looks after your father?” Bert asks, in Dick Van Dyke’s legendarily terrible Cockney accent. “Tell me that. When something terrible ‘appens, what does ‘e do? Fends for ‘imself, ‘e does. Who does ‘e tell about it? No one! Don’t blab his troubles at ‘ome. ‘E just pushes on at his job, uncomplaining and alone and silent.”
Which bring us to Mary Poppins Returns. Jane and Michael are all grown up and Michael is raising three children after his wife’s death. But Michael is the opposite of his father. A struggling artist and a flaky wimp, Michael lives in his dad’s old house and works at dad’s old bank to make ends meet. He employs a housekeeper, but the household is a disaster and he can’t even remember to keep food in the cupboard, leaving the children to shop for groceries on their own. His widower backstory makes him sympathetic rather than just pathetic, but it provides no genuine excuse for his actions: mortgaging his house, forgetting to make loan payments until the bank comes to repossess it, and losing dad’s bank stock certificate, which could cover the loan.
Into this mess flies Mary Poppins, but not to set Michael straight. He needs to get his [act] together (I remarked less politely in the car), to control his emotions around his kids, and to insulate them from the catastrophe he has wrought. Poppins instead lightens his load and entertains the kids for him, helping them mourn their mother—but mostly teaching the value of having more fun. “A Spoonful of Sugar,” a song about attitude and productivity, gets rebooted as “Can You Imagine That,” about the wonders of a carefree life, “living as its own reward,” and how “some stuff and nonsense could be fun.” Nothing matters: when the children break the porcelain bowl their mother had loved, Mary Poppins knows a kooky woman who will magically fix it for them.
Poppins exerts no influence on the central plotline because, again, the story’s conflict has nothing to do with the children or their relationship with their father. Michael fails to resolve any of his problems or stabilize his home, and he inadvertently finds the stock certificate only after packing up for eviction (he had sketched a family portrait on its back). When the certificate doesn’t save the house, a ridiculous deus ex machina comes to the rescue. Never mind, because along the way our feckless protagonist realizes he’s been getting too worked up about the whole losing-the-house thing and taking it out on the children and he decides, inspired by the return of his childhood nanny, to get in touch with his own inner child. This, the audience eventually discovers, is why Poppins has come and what allows her to leave.
Before the credits roll, the family members all choose unique-to-themselves helium balloons, begin floating through the sky, and join together in belting out new-age nonsense like “Look inside the balloon / And if you hear a tune / There’s nowhere to go but up / Choose the secret we know / Before life makes us grow / There’s nowhere to go but up.” While intended as a callback to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” this finale contrasts starkly with the original, in which a father and his children experience the thrills of “a bird in flight,” but do so “with your feet on the ground / With your fist holding tight / To the string of your kite.”
Mary Poppins is a story about life’s tradeoffs and the importance of finding balance, understanding and fulfilling obligations, and subordinating personal ambition.
In Mary Poppins Returns, we get only a celebration of inward-focused self-care in which actions have no consequences, adults have no accountability, and behaving more like a child offers the solution to whatever ails. Pish posh.