This month saw the release of Mary Poppins Returns, an all-new sequel to the iconic Walt Disney classic, Mary Poppins from 1964. It would come to a surprise to no one that Mary Poppins is perhaps one of the most important pieces in the already rich, expansive history of Disney heritage, and it certainly cements itself as one of the greatest highlights as well. The story behind the creation of this film has been chronicled several times, including in Disney’s own historical biopic, Saving Mr. Banks, but the work behind this film and its unparalleled brilliance of heart and humor, and its blend of technical wizardry, make it a timeless classic that still stands the test of time to this very day.
At its surface, Mary Poppins is simply sheer delight. Featuring colorful cinematography, goofy characters, and a golden soundtrack, it’s impossible to not maintain a smile throughout the entirety of its hefty two-hour runtime. But, there’s a profound, yet complex, purpose behind Mary Poppins lying beneath the surface of these characters, particularly in the effect that Mary has upon the people around her. As explored in the film, Saving Mr. Banks, the tale of Mary, and her ability to help with the Banks children was hardly her mission at all, yet it was in the effort to help save Mr. Banks from his fall into loneliness and despair. George Banks’ arc follows what many refer to as ‘the hero’s journey’, and is the most integral part of the film and its tragic backstory. Inspired by a blend of Walt Disney’s father Elias, and Mary Poppins author P.L.Travers’ own father, Harper Travers Geoff, the character of Mr. Banks is blinded by the pursuits of his own ambitions, closing out those around him, as the adventures of the film unfold without his presence. This sets Banks down an ongoing tunnel of loneliness, and is pushed to the point of despair in realizing that his carelessness placed only on himself has left him lonely and unhappy.
The song, Feed the Birds, written by Richard and Robert Sherman is one of the most beautiful songs of the film, and of the Sherman Brother’s already impressive song lineup, but it’s also the song that has the deepest effect on the central character. The song is about an old lady who sits on the steps of the cathedral, begging each passersby to help feed the birds that surround her each day. The song is at the heart of the movie, pertaining to the empathy that George Banks has failed to provide to those that surround him. Perhaps it was through the lack of empathy that the Banks children receive and desire for from their father that Mary inspired them about this minor, yet noble, notion to help this old lady feed the birds. This sets George Banks into an awakening after these events cause chaos for him and his superiors at the bank when his children announce their intentions with their modest financial earnings. Feed the Birds is hardly about an old lady at a cathedral, it instead a wake-up call for George’s own empathy that Mary has carefully orchestrated through his children.
Mary Poppins may be a film filled with fantasy, but it’s also one grounded in reality. There to break the barrier between reality and the fantastical world that Mary inhabits is Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a modest chimney sweeper who is there to introduce the audience to the Banks family. Establishing the colorful, yet realistic world of London in the early half of the century, this film reminds us that as long we are equipped with imagination, empathy, and determination, anything is possible. Mary Poppins is a reminder that each of us have a profound effect on one another, and it’s subtle, powerful morals lie deep within it’s colorful surface, making this a movie layered with meaning and full of fun.
To attempt to recreate the complexities of the Mary Poppins legacy, the team behind Mary Poppins Returns didn’t forget about the many things that made its predecessor such a revered piece of Disney history and a landmark achievement in cinema. Beginning with one of the film’s most important components, the music, the new songwriting duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman took to the legacy of the film, in an attempt to not only invoke the spirit of the original, but in true Mary Poppins style, add a blend of their own originality to the spirit of the film. Taking notes and inspiration from the Disney Legend himself, Richard Sherman, who co-wrote the songs for Mary Poppins along with his late brother, Robert Sherman, the duo ensured that while this film takes a further exploration of the characters set in the 1964 classic, that the spirit was still very much intact with it’s previous installment.
The careful care of maintaining the legacy of the Mary Poppins didn’t end there. In one of the most visually beautiful scenes of the film, the characters visit an animated world, blending a live-action sequence with animated elements, akin to the now-iconic scene in Mary Poppins, in a visual achievement that changed movies forever. Carrying on the spirit of the original, director Rob Marshall insisted that the scene be hand-drawn in the spirit of the original animation technique of the first film. According to Marshall, the sequence took over 16 months to create with work from over seventy animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios. In an era where it can seem difficult to see the heritage of the art form, this film pays tribute to the original spectacle, but also to the groundbreaking work behind creating this gorgeous art form. Mary Poppins Returns also features morals that echo the original, that will be open to wonderful interpretation in the many years to come, once the film exits spoiler-free territory.
Mary Poppins Returns is very much grounded to replicate the legacy of its predecessor, and while Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins is the essential practically perfect film impossible of comparison, this film certainly sought to create a memorable and enjoyable film akin to the magic of the original. There’s a reason that Walt’s crowning achievement still stands the test of time today, and that’s because of it’s gorgeous visuals, great characters, and profound morals that lie within the film. Mary Poppins Returns is here to recreate that, and also to give us another reason to love Mary Poppins again.