What did Mary Poppins accomplish in ‘Mary Poppins Returns’?

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There’s a scene in Mary Poppins Returns in which Lin Manuel-Miranda’s character, Jack, tells the eponymous magical nanny, “It’s a good thing you came along when you did.” But about an hour-and-a-half later, I left the theater wondering, “Was it, though?”

Disney’s hilariously belated sequel is a delightful moviegoing experience full of dazzling visuals and musical numbers that make it more than enough to be an easy recommendation to just about anyone. But I can’t help but feel this is a case of a B+ movie that could have been an A+ had one crucial element of the story just clicked more than it does, namely, the very point of Mary Poppins being there at all.

*Warning: Expect spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns to follow*

Going into the film, I was expecting a sort of Christopher Robin repeat, where a character who grew up with the help of a childlike being has lost the spark of hope in his life, and so that being returns decades later in order to remind him how to have fun and remove the stick up his butt. But that’s not exactly what Mary Poppins Returns is; indeed, Michael Banks isn’t even a part of the main adventure and spends little time with Mary.

The conflict set up by the first act is twofold: one, Michael Banks is grieving over the loss of his wife, and two, he’s days away from losing his house because he’s behind in payments on a bank loan. The first is a compelling issue for Michael to be facing, but with the latter, there isn’t any core character flaw at the center of this conflict; it’s literally just that Michael and Jane have to find a document proving that they own bonds with the bank. So Mary Poppins, a supernatural creature, has returned to…help a family locate a piece of paper that they’ve lost track of and haven’t even looked for that thoroughly yet?

Well, not really. Mary Poppins upon arriving says she’s here to look after the “Banks children,” and when someone thinks she’s talking about Michael’s young kids, she remarks, “Oh yes, them too.” The implication is that she’s actually here to help Michael and Jane, but she doesn’t do so that much: she immediately goes off to sweep the kids up in her magical world – the real kids, not the grown-ups. While these sequences are undeniably wonderful, and while Mary Poppins imparts some valuable lessons, the film hasn’t really adequately established that the kids are in need of them. They’re dismissive of her “stuff and nonsense” at first, but they come around literally by the end of Mary’s first song.

Still, the kids’ time with Mary Poppins mostly works in that the ultimate goal is to find some way to help the parents and alleviate their financial situation; during a lengthy animated detour, the plan is to do so by selling a bowl. But they later find out that this bowl isn’t worth anything, so this plot goes nowhere and ends with a Meryl Streep song that has no purpose in the movie at all. The day is eventually saved when it’s revealed that the documents the Banks were looking for all along were cut up to cover the holes in a kite.

Surely, though, that’s something they would have discovered anyway even if Mary Poppins had never returned since George was already playing around with the kite before her arrival. She helps them out in the last act by turning back time 10 minutes so Michael can make it to the bank before the deadline (not by, as you would assume, actually turning back time, but by just literally turning the hands of Big Ben back 10 minutes), but it turns out this wasn’t necessary since Dick Van Dyke shows up to save the day anyway and we can presume he would have done so even if Michael was a few minutes late.

Since Mary doesn’t have much of a practical impact on the actual plot of saving the home, you would expect in the last act to at least feel she changed these characters’ lives and gave them a much-needed lesson, teaching them something they didn’t know when the movie began. And she does, sort of, but it also wasn’t clear to me that the situation was so dire before Mary came in that this family couldn’t have simply gotten to that point on their own. The joy returns to Michael’s life, but was that really because of anything Mary Poppins did other than just show up?

The key scene, I suppose, is when Michael is distraught over his wife’s death and his children comfort him by imparting the lesson Mary Poppins taught them: that nothing’s gone forever. But while that scene is effective, Mary said that pretty early in the movie, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like that’s the lesson their whole grand adventure was about in the end.

You’d want there to be a clear point A to point B arc where the family is in dire straights, then Mary comes in and sweeps the kids up on this journey that leads them to learn one important lesson, which feels like the key natural end point of everything and changes the family’s life forever. Instead, it feels more like a family is having a rough day for some very legitimate reasons, so Mary Poppins comes in, gives them some advice almost immediately, then they goof around and dance for about an hour with no real end goal, and then the family solves the actual problem on their own while the kids recall the lesson Mary taught them but that had nothing really to do with the fact that they also just danced around with some animated penguins for hours.

This might all sound pretty harsh, but I did really enjoy Mary Poppins Returns. The songs are all fabulous (I couldn’t disagree more with the notion that they’re unmemorable), the dance sequences are well choreographed, and Emily Blunt is pitch perfect in the role. On a scene-by-scene level, there’s little I didn’t relish. But I ultimately walked away wishing it had all amounted to more than the sum of its parts, even if each of those parts is enough to make the experience worth it.

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