Opinion by Jim Denney
Let’s talk about Mary Poppins Returns. And if you haven’t seen it yet, relax — there will be no plot spoilers in this post.
I expected to love this new Poppins movie — and I did. Oddly, it is both a sequel and a remake of Walt Disney’s original Mary Poppins. It takes place a generation later than the first film, during the Great Depression, and the Banks children, Jane and Michael, are now grown. That makes it a sequel. Yet the film is structured like the original, which makes it feel like a remake.
Emily Blunt as Mary delivers a charming performance, a just-right balance of prim and prissy propriety along with wild and magical fun. She doesn’t try to mimic Julie Andrews but inhabits the role in her own practically perfect way.
The story, the casting, the performances, the music, it’s all wonderful. The ending? Joyous and just right. While there are no songs that lodge in your soul like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or “Just a Spoonful of Sugar,” the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) are wildly inventive toe-tappers.
I was, however, disappointed by one song in the film — “A Cover Is Not the Book.” Performed by Mary (Emily Blunt) and her lamplighter friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), it’s probably the catchiest, most rollicking song in the movie. The lyrics will probably fly over the heads of most children and many adults, because it’s sung in a rapid-fire patter style. But the song is not about books. It’s about sex. It’s a series of double entendres strung together and set to lively music.
The problem for me is not merely that there is a bawdy song in a Mary Poppins movie. The problem is that the song violates the Mary Poppins character and undermines the soul of the movie. And who or what is this magical character, Mary Poppins? I’ll get to that in a moment.
The creator of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, was not a Christian in a conventional sense, though she did believe in God. She once said that the Mary Poppins tales, which she conceived while recovering from a serious illness, were gifts from God, and she cited the words of C. S. Lewis: “There is only one Creator; we merely mix the ingredients He gives us.”
One of the strangest aspects of the Mary Poppins character is that she is unexplained. Neither the original books nor the two Disney films offer a word of explanation for her enchanting powers or her origin. So what kind of creature is Mary Poppins? Let’s see — she comes down out of the clouds, out of the Heavens, you might say, and she ministers to a family in need, and especially the children. She is totally selfless and giving, asking nothing for herself. She can be stern, and even cross, but she is always loving, wise, generous, patient, and knows exactly what to say in every situation.
So what is she? She’s an angel, of course. A guardian angel.
I don’t know if Travers consciously thought of Mary as an angel. I’ve never read an interview in which she said so explicitly. But I think that, at the very least, Travers’ unconsciously invented a reimagined heavenly messenger who comes to the Banks children in their hour of need. Mary performs the functions that guardian angels perform.
Unfortunately, according to Mary Poppins Returns, she is an angel who sings risqué songs at the Royal Doulton Music Hall.
The song didn’t spoil the movie for me. I loved Mary Poppins Returns. Truly loved it. But unlike Walt Disney’s original Mary Poppins film and character, I can’t say that this new Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way.
Note: You may also enjoy my op-ed piece on Walt Disney’s impact on the American space program. You’ll find it at the FoxNews.com website: https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/walt-disney-deserves-credit-for-our-progress-on-the-moon-and-mars-not-just-mickey-mouse.
And don’t miss my interviews with Christian romance writer Robin Lee Hatcher (author of Who I Am With You and An Idaho Christmas: Past and Present), and Christian science fiction writer Kerry Nietz (author of Amish Vampires in Space and Fraught). Visit my website at Writing in Overdrive. See you there!
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.