4. Mary Poppins Returns
My daughter and I love Mary Poppins, and we share a high regard for Emily Blunt and Lin-Manual Miranda. How could we resist trekking to the theater the day the new film opened in Bangkok?
How could we know that the best part of the film was that which followed the previews but preceded the feature. The part where we stood at attention to show our abject admiration for the King of Thailand, to watch a short documentary covering his life story and listened respectfully to the rousing national anthem? After that, the experience was generally tedious and vacuous. A complete disappointment.
Nothing was fresh except Blunt’s performance. Miranda’s expression never changed from beginning to end of the film, and his songs and scenes were sappy, over-acted, void of either humor or interest. Fortunately for us, some of the cartoons transfixed my grandson for a little while, and he was happy to eat popcorn and sit quietly. But before long, we had to pull out his little iPad so that he could return to the thrall (for the 90th or so time) of the endlessly repetitive episodes of Paw Patrol we had previously downloaded. I was relieved to have the Paw Patrol distraction myself. Rob Marshall’s film is a kettle of tasteless, rubbery squid. Not exactly delicious fare for a diehard vegan.
I know I’m not “normal.” I’m back to where I am with Mrs. Maisel. Everyone else loves the achievement. I feel like that lone little boy at the storybook parade shouting, “But the emperor is naked . . . .” At least with Mary Poppins, I am not alone. My daughter shared the displeasure.
This was especially upsetting for me. I am an inveterate Poppins fan. I began reading the books to myself before I was 5, and I read them to my many siblings in the intervening years before I grew up and shared them with my own progeny. I saw the trailer for Mary Poppins Returns, and I could not wait to see the whole movie – it looked like it might have something in common with the original P.L. Travers’ stories on which it was based.
Alas, I was wrong. This so-called adaptation bore almost no resemblance to the material co-writers David Magee and Rob Marshall theoretically translated for the screen.
Magee and Marshall eliminated everything Travers wrote. Except the title character, who is, I should add, played superbly by Emily Blunt. Were that she had had a script worthy of her talent.
To be fair, they did insert Blunt’s Poppins into momentary glimpses of the various sequels P.L.Travers actually wrote. For the most part, however, the writers have created an entirely new set of characters that they have stuffed into a story that is no more than a very distant cousin of the fantastical tales Travers told about her mesmerizing British nanny.
I have read that the writers at Disney found the original material too dark. Ironic that.
There must be a Disney trope that demands that, in order to be significant, a film for children must begin with youngsters dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of their mothers. This seems to constitute a leit-motif for young audiences. I’m confused. What’s darker than the premise that three children under 11 have had to grow up all too quickly in the wake of their mother’s horrific, untimely death?
The “too-dark” material of the P.L. Travers books features no dead mothers. In Travers’ Mary Poppins Comes Back or Mary Poppins Opens The Door, all the Banks family members are very much alive. Including the parents who first endure and then engage Mary Poppins over and over again. Jane has not grown up to defy her class station and take up the sword of socialism as is her Emily Mortimer film shade, and Michael Banks is not the widower portrayed by Ben Whishaw.
Both siblings remain children through every one of the Poppins books. Two of five very realistic children, in fact. Their fantasies are not always sweetness and light, but they are always wildly creative. The children wander in and out of conundrums and dilemmas they encounter in their dream worlds, but they never fail to come home to their ever-loving if somewhat misguided parents. Two of them.
Conversations with sea slugs and other unlikely animal heroes, who figure adorably and prominently in the books, are apparently too disturbing for a children’s film. By contrast, the threat of homelessness is clearly unthreatening enough an adventure for modern children. The original Travers material never once suggests, as the film insists, that the house the family lives in is in jeopardy. Mary Poppins’ role as savior is to liberate the children from the ignominy of unmannerly behavior. She protects them from the failure to be imaginative. She struggles against their individual and collective loss of innocence. She never has to fight thwart the bank manager’s evil intentions.
Obviously, Travers wrote far too darkly for a children’s musical.
On the other hand, a dance sequence populated by multitudinous men cavorting with a single female becomes, in the world of Disney, no more than a tasteful romp. Dozens of dirty chimney sweeps in step with one young Poppins and a leering Miranda felt creepy to me. Not one female dancer in the crowd. I guess kids must accept that women can never be cast as chimney sweeps (we certainly can’t ask women to play males), especially not in the 1950s version of the 1890s that’s been put on this screen. It just wouldn’t be right.
An aside here . . . did the Script supervisor not notice that the skyline shots were far too modern for the theoretical setting?
In both Mary Poppins Comes Back and Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Travers takes the children to places where they are forced to learn about their responsibilities to self and country, to parents and each other. Many of the characters are loony. But there is no person or situation nearly as sinister as any of those Marshall interjects into his version.
In the book, for example, Mrs. Turvy, played in the film by Meryl Streep, is madly contrary. She has to be. She is happily married to Mr. Topsy. The concept of a husband-wife partnership in comic turmoil must have been a controversial concept for Marshall and his merry men. Mr. Topsy has been eliminated from the film. The magical couple that spends most of their episode laughing at the absurdity of it all have been replaced by the innocuous cardboard figure allotted to Ms. Streep. Turvy without Topsy floats obnoxiously in a tone-deaf, flat-bottomed skiff of a song. Oh well, at least there’s a happy message — Meryl Streep can still do accents.
My favorite of the Travers sequels was Mary Poppins Comes Back. Poppins returns just when Jane and Michael appear to be turning into impossible children. They won’t bathe properly, won’t sit at the table long enough to finish eating, won’t speak respectfully to their parents. The Banks family has expanded to include twins Jon and Barbara, who are just about to age out of infancy and become toddlers.
Another aside here: Unfortunately, Marshall wrote Jon and Barbara out of the equation entirely, along with Annabel, the youngest child, who appears somewhat later. I understand compressing the three characters into one. Composite characters are a great way to avoid clutter. But did they have to dump three children and add a Georgie? Would a spirited little girl child have been less viable an idea than this vapidly incorrigible Georgie Disney has invented here?
Anyway, in Mary Poppins Comes Back, the twins’ moment of maturity is a poignant one. Their friend the local starling, who lives on the Banks’ second story ledge, has been coming daily to converse at length with the twins, who have always been fluent in starling. Then one day he arrives and asks, as he does every day, for a bit of biscuit. Neither twin responds. Neither twin is pleased to see him. Neither twin has anything to say. Poppins explains to the frustrated starling that human children lose their ability to talk to animals when they are no longer infants, no longer connected to their primitive past.
Yup that’s just the kind of scary reality that could keep your preschoolers up at night. Good thing this film has protected us by providing the un-terrifying mediocrity of a meaningless script peopled by vacuous characters performing derivative musical numbers.
Thank goodness my grandkids are safe.
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