Back in the mid 1960s, there was a magic movie, one that spawned toys and chocolates, images of dancing penguins and of a third-grader trying his best to sing, in his public vocal debut, a song called “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
It was of course, “Mary Poppins,” and it I actually saw it twice on the big screen, both times at an old vaudeville theater that was just a few years away from being resigned to showing mostly slasher and porno films.
But in the mid 1960s, it was still showing matinees for kids, especially in the summer. And so, the first two times I saw that glimmering panorama of London, it was on the big screen, with music cascading off the walls of the old cinema.
And then, over the following decades, I probably saw bits and pieces of it at least a dozen times, on the small screen, in VHS or Betamax or, once or twice, on DVD.
Of course, the experience wasn’t the same. But what really could top that original presentation, the one in which Julie Andrews got her revenge for not being cast in the movie version of “My Fair Lady” by winning and Oscar, and in which Dick Van Dyke traded in his perpetually gray suit for a chimney sweep’s outfit and – though we didn’t realize it at the time – a pretty dreadful Cockney accent?
And really, who was going to try?
So, when I heard they were apparently going to remake “Mary Poppins,” I kind of cringed.
I envisioned the same story, this time with CGI penguins.
But then I found out this wasn’t going to be a remake, but a sequel. And I read how Walt Disney had tried to do a sequel practically before the crowd left Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the original’s premiere.
A few years before, I’d gone to see “Saving Mr. Banks” on Christmas night. It wasn’t a great movie, but it did spark some of the memories of that old Poppins film.
And so, on another Christmas night, I went to see “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Keep in mind, I have never read any of P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” books, and probably never will. So all of what follows will pretty much be limited to the two movies. Here are some thoughts about the two movies, their songs, their presentations and the performances of the actors in them.
Oh, and a little something about the reaction of young and old.
Let’s start with one obvious thing: While “Returns” isn’t a remake, it is made up of compartments that obviously correlate with parts of the original.
For example, the opening scene with Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack singing “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” closely parallels “Chim Chim Cheree” as a sort of calling card for the male protagonist (Bert/Jack).
“Can You Imagine That?” parallels “A Spoonful of Sugar” in introducing Mary Poppins to the children.
Obviously, “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” is the movie’s big animated production number, and therefore parallels “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Jolly Holiday.”
“Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” the film’s big live-action production number, is an obvious parallel to “Step in Time.”
And it’s pretty obvious “Turning Turtle” is the “I Love to Laugh” for this film, and that “Nowhere to Go But Up” parallels “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
These are only the ones that jumped out at me. I’m sure there are others.
More on the music later.
TURN UP THE LIGHTS?
Overall, I found a lot of this film to be a bit darker than the original.
Literally, in terms of the cinematography. Everything just seemed a little darker than before; the inside of the Banks mansion, in particular, seemed much brighter in the original version.
In terms of plot, this one, to me, had a much more ominous storyline. In the original, it seemed as if the biggest problem everybody had was that Mr. Banks MIGHT lose his job, and that he and his family weren’t exactly getting along that well.
In this version, almost from the start, Michael Banks and his children – who are now without their mother, which is totally removed from the original, in which the mother was more of a distant suffragette, but she was alive, at least – are facing not only eviction and foreclosure, but are being singled out for this by a pretty malevolent banker.
Although you know it’s going to work out, it makes for a much more gloomy first half of the film, at least.
NO WORLD WAR II JUST YET
This film is supposed to take place in the 1930s, and I actually went into the theater thinking (thanks to an erroneous article I’d read) that it took place in 1939.
I had a hard time imagining how they were going to make a Mary Poppins movie that year, given that everybody in London around that time had other things (like the coming war) on their minds.
But then I saw that it was during the “Great Slump,” and more or less set in 1935.
To be honest, there are scenes in this movie that look like something out of Dickens.
The search for Meryl Streep’s character makes Fagan’s hideout in “Oliver!” look like a gentrified neighborhood.
But certainly, it would have been hard to sell this movie had it actually been set in 1939. So to whoever got it wrong in that story I read … Thanks a lot!
HITTING THE GAS
I did wonder if they still had gas lamps in London in 1935, but apparently they did.
I didn’t realize until after I saw this film that they had gas lamps in Baltimore as late as 1957.
I don’t know if they still had chimney sweeps, at any rate.
BOOM! GOES THE ADMIRAL?
I was a bit puzzled how the Admiral Boom character, who really was a minor character in the original, seemed to keep showing up in this one.
And while I loved Julie Harris in “Educating Rita” many years ago, I thought her character showed up a bit too much in this one – again, more than in the original, as far as I can tell.
As for the stars, I was pleasantly surprised by both Emily Blunt and Miranda. Blunt was a little more serious about things than Julie Andrews was, it seemed, but to be honest, I preferred Blunt’s take on the role.
Miranda is no master of British dialects either, but he didn’t lay it on as hard as Van Dyke did. And in contrast to the Blunt-Andrews situation, I thought he had a more cheerful disposition most of the time compared to Van Dyke’s Bert.
Colin Firth was serviceable as the villain Wilkins, but, again, it’s kind of hard to really buy that totally when you know he’s going to be foiled in the end. And then again, nothing really happens to him at the end – except that his balloon won’t fly.
The Angela Lansbury character at the end is apparently from one of the books, and she was nice in the role. I’m not sure if she was the closest thing to the Bird Woman (“Feed the Birds”) in the original, but her short role was fine.
I’m thinking Meryl Streep was in the movie so they could have Meryl Streep in the movie. That whole scene could have been cut, just as the “I Love to Laugh” scene with Ed Wynn in the original could have been the first thing to go.
Supposedly, P.L. Travers was mortally offended by the animation scenes in the original movie.
If the producers of “Mary Poppins Returns” did nothing else, and even if they botched the rest of the movie, they deserve a standing ovation for not only coming up with an animated sequence (including ”The Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “A Cover is Not the Book”) that, in my opinion, really blew away the original.
It was definitely worthy of the company that, nearly 80 years ago, produced “Fantasia,” and has often strayed from that standard over the years. But this one was in the same league as anything Disney did when Walt was alive.
Specifically, too, they did not just plaster CGI images all over the place. They used more than 70 animators drawing by hand – in the classic Disney style – and it really showed.
To me, the animation scenes were incredible.
Now let’s get to the overall soundtrack. And this is where I was most fascinated.
The original film had a couple of show-stopping numbers (the one I sang in third grade, “Chim Chim Cheree” and “Feed the Birds”)
I don’t think there’s a song, in terms of the melody, that touches “Feed the Birds.” I never really got what that scene was all about; I still don’t get the nobility of buying a bag of crumbs off a woman who happens to sit outside St. Paul’s so you can feed some pigeons (I’m not a big fan of pigeons). I’ve always thought they just put that scene in there because Walt Disney loved the music for “Feed the Birds” (he compared to “Brahms’ Lullaby”).
Anyway, “Feed the Birds” did not really have a parallel in this movie.
However, from start to finish, the music in this movie is, in my opinion, far superior to the music throughout the original.
All the songs have a lush, melodic tone to them. They just seem to flow with the plot,
To be honest, in the original, I think most of the songs, aside from the showstoppers were pretty pedestrian. That's not the case here.
I don’t think “The Life I Lead” or “Stay Awake” or “A Man Has Dreams” were necessarily sparkling pieces of music.
But almost every number in “Mary Poppins Returns” is melodic and richly constructed. And the incidental music throughout the movie is quite lush, I think.
Finally, I was fascinated by the reaction to the people with whom I saw the movie.
“Mary Poppins Returns” has numerous bits of dialogue that pay homage to the 1964 movie. For example, during Dick Van Dyke’s cameo toward the end, he starts the old “I knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith …” joke.
When these, or any other lines from the original, came up, I could hear adults in the audience chuckle. But that was about it.
I didn’t really see anybody over 40 – and there were plenty of them there – getting into the music or any of the bits of dialogue in the movie. They seemed to be there looking for parallels – obviously, from what you’ve just read, I was looking for them, as well.
However, anybody under, say, 15 years of age – and there were plenty of them, too – were more enchanted, it seemed, by the rest of the movie.
I didn’t see too many adults smiling or laughing during the animation, but the kids were enthralled. The same goes for the balloon scene at the end.
There’s no doubt that adults were thrilled to see Van Dyke, though. I think a few of them just came to see him!
THEY PULLED IT OFF
Well, there’s no sense in repeating what I just said. “Mary Poppins Returns” is one of the best things Disney has done – in the sense of living up to the legacy of “classic” Disney – in many years.
I hope they don’t overdo it and pump out one every year, though. But then again, they probably shouldn’t wait 55 years either.
Bill Savage, December, 2018