The Dark Magic of Mary Poppins Returns

The 21st century’s answer to the 20th-century classic updates its story for a time that is uneasy with simple solutions.

Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks is the story of tragedy as much as it is the story of magic. Nominally the tale of the genesis of Mary Poppins, the 1964 movie, the film is also a biopic by another means: an exploration of the childhood of P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins book series that informed the iconic Disney film. Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks suggests, was rooted in sadness: Travers, born Helen Lyndon Goff, lost her beloved father, a man of imagination and youthful wonder, when he was 43 (due to, the film suggests, complications from alcoholism). Employed, like Mr. Banks, at a financial institution, the film’s Goff (Colin Farrell) was torn between the soft whimsies of childhood and the hard responsibilities of becoming an adult. So, in its way, is the movie: Saving Mr. Banks is the story of magic colliding with business. Set in the early 1960s, as P. L. Travers negotiates with Walt Disney about selling him the rights to her enchanted nanny, it is a story, ultimately, about a contract that changed the course of entertainment history. Emma Thompson plays Travers, the owner of the IP, as prickly and principled to a fault and, in all that, slightly pitiable.

The new Mary Poppins film, Mary Poppins Returns—this one starring Emily Blunt as the iconic caretaker, playing the role with a bit more sternness and edge than Julie Andrews’s 1964 version—is in many ways a fitting sequel to the original. The new movie is, like the one that came before it, a meditation on childhood, full of whimsies and mysteries and suspended disbeliefs, all of them grafted onto the sooty cityscape of London. (And the film is, indeed, a sequel rather than a remake: It is set in the 1930s, roughly 20 years after the events of the original film took place. Mary Poppins’s charges, Jane and Michael Banks, are now grown; the nanny has come, this time around, to care for Michael’s three children.)

But Mary Poppins Returns is also fitting as a sequel to Saving Mr. Banks: It is a film about childhood not merely as a time of easy enchantments, but also as a time of profound disappointment. Where the first Mary Poppins was a celebration of childish things—the happy ending it offers finds the adults rediscovering their own sense of kidly curiosities and joys—the 2018 version is decidedly more melancholy. It is a tribute to the pain that can be such a significant part of being young, as small humans come to understand the world as a place not only of possibility, but also of its opposite. The film achieves that shift primarily through one of its plot points: Mary Poppins Returns is set in the year after Michael’s wife, the children’s mother, died. It finds the whole Banks family in mourning—every member in his or her own way. It finds the kids in need of a nanny not because they are neglected by living parents, as in the 1964 version, but because their father is paralyzed with grief. Here is the true story of P. L. Travers, whose loving father was taken too young, woven into the new story of the character Travers created.

The animating idea of Saving Mr. Banks is its implication that Travers, stern and staid and embittered, was perhaps the kind of person that Mary Poppins, whose fate is to give and give and expect nothing in return, might have become—had the character not been insulated by the airy protections of magic. Blunt’s performance as Mary both channels that suggestion and challenges it: 2018’s version of Mary Poppins is still mysterious, still sweet to the children, still stern, still caring. But it does not believe that the solving of problems can be outsourced to magic. Mary Poppins Returns is a movie not about finding solutions in magic, but rather about using magic to make do. It’s a fitting shift for a world that has, in the years between 1964 and today, been disabused of some of its favorite illusions. Here are some of the lyrics to “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” the lullaby Mary sings to the children when they are unable to sleep:

Memories you’ve shed
Gone for good you feared
They’re all around you still
Though they’ve disappeared
Nothing’s really left
Or lost without a trace
Nothing’s gone forever
Only out of place
So maybe now the dish
And my best spoon
Are playing hide and seek
Just behind the moon

Mary Poppins here, summoning sadness and hope as she sings the kids to sleep, functions less as a vehicle of enchantment, and more as an agent of understanding: She, uniquely, is able to empathize with the Banks children, understanding what loss feels like to kids. Her supernatural abilities lead her to a capacious kind of sympathy. That, too, is a tribute to Travers. Saving Mr. Banks may center the life of the author; it doesn’t, however, paint a full picture of who Travers really was. Nor does the 1964 version of Mary Poppins—a film which, after Travers finally gave Disney the rights to it, took the character Travers had imagined and transformed her into Julie Andrews, warbling sweetly about the affordances of sugar and dancing with animated penguins. This was not, fully, what Travers had envisioned for Mary. (After viewing the film, she told her publisher that Disney’s Mary Poppins was “all wrapped around mediocrity of thought, poor glimmerings of understanding.”)

Instead, Travers had imagined something more akin to the Mary Poppins of 2018: a character who is stern, but compassionate. A character who is meant to be not merely magical, but also—and more so—mythical. Travers, by disposition and in practice, was a scholar, a voracious studier of the world. She had, as her biographer Valerie Lawson put it, a “hunger for esoteric wisdom.” In addition to her writing, Travers also had a career as a Shakespearean actress. (She played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) She was a dancer. (The iconic turnout of Mary Poppins’s feet, the lore has it, was inspired by the foot positions of ballet.) She studied mysticism with George “Æ” Russell, and with the Russian spiritual teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. She spent time, in the mid-1940s, on a Navajo reservation near New Mexico. “Gradually,” she would remark of that experience, “I was able to hear some of their stories, elements of their myths and religions, and so to see that these were related, distant cousins but still related to the stories of the rest of the world.”

The monomyth, in the form of an enchanted nanny: Travers’s study of, and abiding interest in, mythology permeates the Mary Poppins series of books, particularly in the later editions. (The Atlantic’s 1944 review of Mary Poppins Opens the Door referred to the protagonist as a “governess extraordinaire and popular beloved of the gods—or is she herself a celestial handmaiden in disguise?”) To call it “magic” minimizes the matter: Travers saw her creation, instead, one 2016 analysis put it, as part of “a rich tradition of female wisdom, living outside of time and somehow beyond the reach of human perspective.” Mary Poppins, accordingly, in the books, carries on conversations not just with animals, but also with the planets (with which she dances) and the sun itself (by which she is kissed). In Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, a character asks, “Didn’t your grandmother tell you nothing? Mine told it to me and hers told her. And her grandmother told it to her, and away and away, right back to Adam.”

Disney’s original Mary Poppins is content to render much of that mythology as something much simpler. In it, “a rich tradition of female wisdom” expresses itself primarily through the observation that “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” The magic is total, encompassing and explaining everything that happens in the film, be it a mirror whose image doesn’t match reality or a caretaker capable of sliding up the bannister with ease. Mary Poppins is two-dimensional in several immediate senses—characters, for one thing, jump into and out of chalk drawings near the Banks family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane—but one other sense is that the film, a product of the American 1960s, is content to have Mary Poppins be a transactional figure: She is summoned, she arrives, she helps, she leaves. Spit-spot: The magic is, in its way, extremely straightforward.

Fifty years later, Mary Poppins Returns is in its own way two-dimensional: Visually, the film is painterly, its action often unfolding against sets that swirl with impressionistic swipes of color and shadow and light. And its story revolves, too, of course, around magic. But it is much more self-conscious about magic itself, about the complicated mysticism that humans summon when they seek supernatural solutions to natural problems. It is a small thing, but a telling one, that the 2018 answer to 1964’s chalk drawing is a three-dimensional bowl: Mary Poppins takes the children on a carriage ride within the curves of the object. And it is small but revealing, as well, that during the carriage ride, the children don’t merely watch as Mary dances with animated penguins; they are also chased by villains, who are trying to kill them. The stakes are higher here. Childhood is much more dangerous here.

This is mythology, still, in its way—Mary Poppins moves with the wind, and is gifted by the sky—but it is tinged with melancholy realism. It is myth that is unsatisfied with magic: a 20th-century story that has made itself, through the light but also through the shadows, at home in the world of the 21st.