by Alvin G. Burstein
I viewed the 2018 sequel in the context of two of its predecessors: the 1964 Mary Poppins block-buster film featuring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and the 1934 book by that name written by P. L. Travers.
Set in 1935, the sequel picks up the story of the Banks family twenty-five years after Mary Poppins departure in the first film. Michael, the oldest son, is now widowed and trying, with the help of his sister, Jane and Ellen, the maid, to raise his two children. Having to raise money that his paltry salary is inadequate to meet, he has taken a loan from his employer, the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, and has fallen behind in re-paying it. As the movie opens, he and the family learn that the Bank is about to repossess their home and evict them. His son, George, finds his father’s childhood, about to be discarded kite, and takes it to the park. Once airborne, the kite returns—bearing Mary Poppins. She returns to her nanny duties, involving the children in sundry adventures, and ultimately is central in foiling the threatened dispossession of the family.
Both films are froth, fanciful confections. If you liked the first film, you will like the second. But there are some differences. Though real in a cartoonish sense—think chim chim cher-ee and superacalifragilisticexpialidocius. Those of the sequel more mood lifting, like Orphan Annie’s Tomorrow.
Dick Van Dyke, the chalk artist and chimney sweep in the first film, dances with Astaire-like precision; Lin-Manuel Miranda, the lamp-lighter in the sequel, dances with an athleticism that evokes memories of Gene Kelley. Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins displays a taste for exhibitionism and an attachment to her charges that is less prominent than is Julie Andrew’s. Both films center on an evolution in the character of the fathers in succeeding generations. In the first film, Mr. Banks becomes less business oriented, more playful and familycentered. In the second film, his son, that Mr. Banks, becomes less depressed and more assertive. Changes in both cases, but quite different ones.
Lastly, doubtless as a function of a heightened contemporary concern about such matters, the second film is much more scrupulous in avoiding invidious racial stereotyping. The second film has Black characters in substantial roles; the first has Admiral Boom, upset at the sight of a group of sooty chimney sweeps cavorting, having his cannon fired at them, referring to them as Hottentots.
Both films differ from the Travers book in important ways. Most important is that the movies’ great strength is spectacle, fascinating the audience with an elaborate, intricate, kaleidoscopic firework display. The book, when read, stimulates the imagination. The films distract. The book provokes. The experiences of children reading the book or having it read to them by a parent is vastly different and much richer than that of a child entranced by the film. That is probably true in general of movie watching versus reading. That difference is especially clear in the case of Mary Poppins, who, in Travers book, has a hamadryad in her ancestry and wears a snake skin belt. For readers of any age, that Mary Poppins is darker, more complex, and more compelling than her screen version.