I took a wee break from writing over the weekend. I got some upsetting personal news Friday afternoon and spent that evening in bed reading and playing Make the World Go Away in an endless mental loop.*
Then, Saturday I caught up on not one but two big film releases from 2018 I missed along the way: Mary Poppins Returns and Avengers: Infinity War. Since I saw Mary Poppins Returns early in the day, I’ll write about that one first. I’m assuming I’ll circle back to Infinity War at some point, though there is a certain ludicrosity to me taking on either of these blockbusters so far after the curve.
But that’s where we are. And I have enough thoughts popcorning in my brain about Mary Poppins Returns that I absolutely want to mull over that for a bit.
(Since this is going to more of a critical meditation than a straight-up review, there may be plot details/spoilers that get spilled below the jump. Be warned.)
First off: I liked the film a lot. My love for the original Mary Poppins film is so great that it was pretty much guaranteed that I’d be watching this sequel more with my heart than with my critical judgement. That was indeed the case, so between the strength of Emily Blunt’s characterization, the plain old fun Lin-Manuel Miranda is having with his (admittedly thin) role, and the nostalgia factor of seeing Cherry Tree Lane and Dick van Dyke, I was sure to be a fan of this film.
In the 36 hours or so since watching the film, I have found myself thinking and feeling lots of things about the generational and temperamental differences between the two films. There’s a fundamental parallel between the two films, a journey of providing nurture and imaginative adventure to neglected children while simultaneously guiding the family patriarch to awaken his appreciation for the everyday magic and joy of life. But in almost every way, Mary Poppins Returns replicates the different story beats of this journey and amps the intensity up to 11.
In Poppins 1964**, dad is preoccupied with work and mom is preoccupied with her community activism. In Poppins 2018, mom has recently died*** and dad is lost in depression and grief. 1964 dad is worried about whether or not he’ll get a promotion, and then loses his job on account of a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, 2018 dad is about to lose the family house because of the deceptions, manipulations, and direct malfeasance of Colin Firth’s villainous Will Wilkins. The climactic action of 1964’s Poppins is when the two Banks kids are lost in London’s streets for about half-a-minute before running into Bert. The climx in 2018 involves Miranda’s Jack (our Bert analogue) risking life and limb to climb Big Ben’s tower in order to turn back the clock hands—an attempt that fails only for Mary to fly up at the last second to move them.****
Even the obligatory animated sequence works to bring the tension up by several notches: in 1964, Mary, Bert and the Bankses end up stumbling into and competing in a horse steeplechase, while in 2018, an evil cartoon wolf***** kidnaps the youngest Banks child and leads the older two siblings on a high-stakes chase to rescue him. I haven’t quite figured out what I think it means, but there’s something in this last bit that really jumps out for me around how, in a world where Mary Poppins supposedly is the idealized nurturing force, we have this climactic moment where the children who’ve been emotionally abandoned by their father are similarly abandoned by the person who’s come here to make up for that abandonment.
Perhaps more than everything else I’ve outlined above, I am struck by the contrast between the joyful conclusions of the two films. In 1964, Mr. Banks sings “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” a song that is a wonderful anthem about how even the simplest actions in life can be a source of tremendous joy and magic. The simplicity of seeing the Banks’s community—even the bankers who had previously been unsympathetic to this valuation of non-monetary things—gathered in the park flying kites at the movie’s end is a really beautiful communication of that message.
In the conclusion of the 2018 film, there’s this whole fancy country fair that has sprung up overnight (impeccably clean and unrealistically color-coordinated), and the balloons that have been substituted for 1964’s kite’s are actually, literally magic. Michael sings his closing song whilst being lifted high in the air by his magic balloon, to be joined throughout the course of the number by every other character from the film. (Except for Colin Firth: he takes a balloon which plummets straight form the balloon onto the gravel path of the park. Guess this ain’t a world in which redemption or character development is available to us.)
That switch, from seeing and acknowledging the magic that can exist in the mundane everyday, towards an ethos where grand spectacle is required to summon one’s sense of joy—that’s one that troubles me. No matter how much nostalgic and associative affection I have for Mary Poppins Returns (and I do!!), that final message saddens me a bit.
* I’ll post about this in a couple more days, once I’m ready to do so.
** I don’t know how else to have a quick shorthand between the two films and I’m getting bored of typing the full titles every damn time.
*** How typical.
**** When this happened, I heard the lady next to us in the theater ask her companion: “Why didn’t she just do that to begin with?” I’m with you on that, unknown movie-goer.
***** Voiced by Firth, even though none of the kids have even met his character yet, let alone figured out his untrustworthiness….
Image credit: Photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.
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