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Film
by David J. Skal

Sequel, Califragilistic


ONE OF MY most unrealistic, yet fervently held, childhood wishes was to be able to fly, a fantasy that was first aided and abetted by both the Mary Martin and Walt Disney versions of Peter Pan. And then there was that Flubber-propelled flivver in The Absent-Minded Professor. And I'm sure my precocious yearning to become a king of infinite space also had something to do with Disney's 1964 version of Mary Poppins, though I was by then facing the crossroad at which I would soon let go of Disney and start taking my life lessons from monsters.

Faced with the dark abyss of adolescence, and with the airborne nanny ex machina likely the last hurrah for my dreams of weightlessness, I saw the film in theaters more than once, the first time at its roadshow engagement at one of Cleveland's venerable downtown movie palaces, later in one of the neighborhood venues, and very quickly, like millions of others, was happily humming most of the songs. Even today, I can remember most of the lyrics, the better to serenade my cats from the shower.

So who, or what, exactly, is Mary Poppins? She's a hybrid: a threshold figure guarding (and opening) the portal to expanded consciousness, an austere, inscrutable trickster interceding in human affairs, and a fairy-godmother-benevolent-sorceress—Glinda minus the glitz. The fact that Poppins evokes all these entities without pinning them down only broadens her appeal. Travers herself was a student of world mythology, Zen Buddhism, and the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff, all of which find their way, however oddly and obliquely, into the Poppins series.

The Disney film, loosely based on the book series by P.L. Travers, changed the story character forever, and children are often disappointed when reading the books for the first time. There's fun, but it doesn't exactly rollick. Mary is stern and starchy. She can subvert reality, but only when it suits her. And she doesn't sing.

Travers was no fan of Disney, a fact thoroughly and entertainingly explored in Saving Mr. Banks with Emma Thompson as the difficult author and Tom Hanks as the exasperated producer. Mr. Banks was a fairly accurate account of the contentious Disney/Travers pas de deux, until the ending, a completely false account of the author ultimately embracing the producer's vision. In fact, Travers loathed Disney and loathed the film, refused to authorize a sequel, and died in 1996, certain that Disney would never defile her work again. Fortunately, after five decades, Travers's estate saw the economic light and greenlighted Mary Poppins Returns. The studio wisely assigned director Rob Marshall, who had terrific movie versions of the musicals Chicago and Into the Woods already in his pocket.

The new story takes place twenty-five years after the first film, which set back the clock from Traver's first book, set and published in 1934, to Edwardian times. So now we find ourselves in the middle of the Great Depression, or the Great Slump, as the Brits call it. Little Michael Banks has grown into a thirty-something Ben Whishaw, here playing a recently widowed father of three: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), archetypal and preternaturally poised English movie children if there ever were. Michael's sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), whose mother was a suffragette, follows in her activist footsteps as a union organizer.

As Michael, Whishaw is a widower befuddled by grief, who forgets things like paying the mortgage and is now facing foreclosure. A hard-hearted banker (Colin Firth) is intent on inflicting as much pain as possible upon the young father, who works for him as a teller and thereby can be fired as well as evicted. Into the crisis providentially floats Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who insists on resuming her old job without pay, even though it includes the added responsibility of looking after a pair of adults as well as their children. Also showing up from the past is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter, who, as a boy, was an apprentice to the previous film's Bert, the chimney sweep (Dick Van Dyke then, improbably tall and lanky for an occupation that, for practical reasons, often exploited small children and turned them into hunchbacks). In the mid-century iteration, Bert and Mary were presented as a potentially romantic couple who, in the finished film, never got around to doing anything about it; at least one song making the idea plainer was cut. In the new film, Jack's libido is discreetly channeled into a chaste crush on Jane Banks, and, while Mary Poppins is the woman he spends most of his time with, their relationship remains completely platonic.

The first big production number, "Can You Imagine That?", takes Mary and the children through the bottom of a bathtub for what is, essentially, a CGI-abetted acid trip beneath the waves (hmm…a cube made of sugar helps the medicine go down?) replete with synchronized-swimming, digitally rendered dolphins. Quite an eyeful, but you immediately worry: What about the penguins? Don't let them be Pixared, too! Regardless of what Travers thought—the penguins constituted her breaking point—for me, and millions of others, there can be no Mary Poppins without those dancing penguins, and just the way we remember them, not tarted up with tech. I needn't have worried, because when the penguins finally put in their big, show-stopping soft-shoe, they were products of old-school, hand-drawn animation, just like 1964. And every bit as satisfying.

In his media saturation blitz, Miranda went out of his way to flagellate his Cockney dialect as "the worst English accent ever put on film," perhaps his way of sparing Dick Van Dyke any more insult for his truly egregious 1964 attempt. Actually, Miranda gives a completely passable rendition of theatrical Cockney that would be perfectly at home, say, in a West End revival of Oliver. Let's face it: A truly genuine Cockney dialect, with its heavy Midlands substratum, would end up requiring subtitles. No doubt, Miranda, who didn't receive a "genius" MacArthur Award for nothing, could manage an accent up to the demanding standards of a tenured linguistics professor if he chose, but let's recognize his faux modesty for its real purpose: reinforcing the Disney-friendly image of an aw-shucks teddy bear, which he does very well, and also not to throw any more shade on the venerable Van Dyke, age 93, who appears for a surprise cameo.

Emily Blunt, fresh from her harrowing turn in A Quiet Place, makes an edgier Mary than Julie Andrews, who, in the original film, seemed at times to be sweetly prepping for Maria in The Sound of Music, released the following year. Blunt's accent is noticeably more posh than Andrews's, the added snootiness making her mischievous transgressions all the more delicious, as when she joins Miranda in Sally Bowles bangs and drag to perform a borderline bawdy music hall ditty ("A Cover Is Not the Book") with surprising references to inebriation, nudity, and fig leaves. A subtle, but worldly, nod to present-day fake news and crime in high places comes through in the lyrics: "A cover is not the book / So open it up and take a look / 'Cause under the covers one discovers / That the king may be a crook."

Composer Marc Shaiman follows the song template of the earlier film, and if the score doesn't quite match the prior achievement of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman—well, who could? Among many other feats, the Sherman brothers were the evil geniuses who devised the can't-get-it-out-of-your-head classic "It's a Small World," which still reliably hijacks the brains of Disney park visitors. Nonetheless, the new music is delightfully energetic and lushly orchestrated in the best mid-century Hollywood tradition, and the soundtrack CD can quickly become an infectious pleasure.

The film dutifully—detractors might say slavishly—parallels the storyline of its predecessor, providing analogous songs, scenes, and characters, and in pretty much the same order they appeared way back when. For instance, Mary's cousin Topsy (a hammy, heavily accented Meryl Streep) lives in a crazy house that turns upside down every Wednesday, a sequence in the same vein as Ed Wynn's appearance in the first picture as an eccentric Londoner whose fits of laughter never fail to land him on the ceiling. Whether this is creative cribbing, or just shrewd protection of a brand, it still works. Disney is the closest approximation we still have of the venerable studio system, where a tightly controlled creative process dependably gave birth to extraordinary flights of imagination. There's a Mary Poppins analogy here: Mary's insistence on discipline, decorum, and established precedent is exactly what makes possible joyous excursions into freewheeling fantasy. Mary Poppins Returns demonstrates the same point, simply by following a proven path.

At the end of the film, Angela Lansbury (who was actually competition for Julie Andrews on the first go-round, and, frankly, would have been terrific) makes an unannounced appearance handing out balloons for a spectacular musical finale, "Nowhere to Go But Up," in which most of the cast achieves my fondest childhood dream, sailing and singing with complete abandon high above the park. Ben Whishaw, whose Michael has been moping behind his mustache for the entire film, has a sudden epiphany about buried childhood joy as years of grown-up amnesia are wiped away by weightlessness. "Jane, I remember!" he cries to his sister. "It's all true! Every impossible thing we imagined with Mary Poppins—it all happened!"

Not to shock those of you who have come to think of me as a snarky, cynical Crypt Keeper of the multiplex, but I will confess to getting goosebumps, and then felt involuntary tears of happiness running down my cheeks. When I came back for a second screening, the same thing happened, at exactly the same moment. It's been about fifty years since a movie did that to me. So you won't be surprised that, from here on out, I'll fly away with Rob Marshall anytime he cares to ask.

Since Marshall has already made some mutterings to the press about a second sequel, it seems to me the next natural step would bring back Mary a decade in the future to help the Bankses weather the Blitz, if not defeat Hitler outright. Winston Churchill, are you listening? A secret weapon in the form of a lighter-than-air magical nanny may be hidden right under your nose.

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