WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS. Also, lots of swearing, as it turns out. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Full disclosure: Mary Poppins was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I still adore it. It is absolutely a problematic fave but here we are.
On balance, I did really have a good time at Mary Poppins Returns. But to say I liked it might be an overstatement, or just an oversimplification. I left feeling extremely, intensely ambivalent, and I’ve been wrestling with trying to nail down my response ever since.
Visually, it was stunning (although I thought the visual interplay between fantasy and reality was much less deft than the original). I also loved the performances. Lin-Manuel Miranda was a snack, I tell you what. And JANE. Ugh. Jane was everything. The little girl broke my heart. I cried several times.
I wasn’t crazy about the songs, but they weren’t bad.
My primary problems, as they so often are, were with the script. I liked the story set-up, but in the end, the writers simply didn’t seem to have control over what things meant. As a result, the movie felt unfocused and a satisfying resolution was essentially impossible.
Here are five simple changes I would have made to improve things, ordered from smallest to largest:
1. Tighten the dialogue, and let the songs carry more story.
The original movie feels crisp, clean, stylized, almost like a fairy tale. I think the sequel could have benefitted from a bit more of that sense of spareness, of every gesture and word having significance.
The rest of my points are essentially interrelated, because they all weave together to form the story’s meaning.
2. This was a children’s movie. I feel strongly that in a children’s movie, the children should be the protagonists. Unfortunately, this movie seemed to essentially be telling a story about Michael (their father).
(Don’t even get me started on the ludicrous extent to which Hollywood glorifies, centers, and props up fathers.)
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having interwoven plots about adults and children in a kid’s movie. Here’s how the original Mary Poppins successfully handled this:
- Jane and Michael are acting out and running away because they feel unloved and neglected at home.
- Mrs. Banks avoids home because her husband is critical and emotionally unavailable, trying to run their home like a bank.
- Mr. Banks only knows how to relate to his family as their lord and master, because he’s bought into a false vision of Anglo-imperial pseudo-militaristic bourgeois masculinity. His view of child-rearing centers around enforcing orderliness and the idea that kids are training to be soldiers in the war of life.
- Over the course of the movie, Jane and Michael come to feel loved and nurtured by Mary Poppins, who encourages them to express themselves and be creative.
- Their happiness and high spirits enrage Mr. Banks, who thinks the goal of childhood is learning to conform and preparing to become a successful adult (measured solely in social and financial status).
- Jane and Michael impulsively make a scene at the bank where their father works, with disastrous consequences.
- Jane and Michael are upset and believe that their father doesn’t love them. Bert explains that stiff-upper-lip-ism keeps him from being emotionally open with them (“You’ve got your mother to look after you. And Mary Poppins, and Constable Jones and me. Who looks after your father?…When something terrible happens, what does he do? Fends for himself, he does. Who does he tell about it? No one! Don’t blab his troubles at home. He just pushes on at his job, uncomplaining and alone and silent”).
- Mr. Banks talks to Bert about his grief over the loss of his professional ambitions. Bert points out that maybe a good relationship with his kids would be a more meaningful kind of success.
- Jane and Michael (encouraged by Mary Poppins) apologize to their father and try to help him. Mr. Banks is deeply moved.
- Mr. Banks loses his job. However, he realizes that his children as real people are more important than the societal constructs he’s invested so much in (I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP, HE LITERALLY TELLS HIS BOSS “IT TURNS OUT THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS YOU” WHILE BEING FIRED). He goes home and behaves lovingly and empathetically to his wife and children, taking them on a family outing for the first time ever.
- Jane and Michael now have the loving family they needed.
- Mary Poppins’s job is done and she can leave.
Mr. Banks is a well-developed character with a strong story, but it is ABOUT HIS KIDS. His character is understood entirely through the lens of his parenting (and husbanding) style, and his plot is driven by his children’s actions at every point.
MPR did not do this. At least, I think they kinda made some efforts in that direction, but IMO they failed.
I loved the set-up: Michael was overwhelmed by the financial and emotional pressures of being a single parent and was abdicating core responsibilities to his children (budgeting, providing food for the family) or not performing them at all (paying bills). He was also emotionally absent because of his grief after his wife’s death and his refusal to lean on his sister, Jane.
Excellent! Yes! So Michael has to learn to accept help from other adults and to be the safe, in-control presence his children need, right? He learns that joy and mutual emotional connection makes you more resilient and capable in the face of life’s ups and downs?
Yes, there was a moment when Michael said “I thought I was taking care of my kids, but they were taking care of me all along” or something. But then he never learned to take care of them again! We never saw the kids learn to trust him, or become comfortable relying on him for support instead of providing it for him.
Yes, he learned to have fun again, but that was never tied back to his ability to be a better parent.
Unfortunately, most of the story focused on the external conflict of possibly losing the family home. Even more unfortunately, the kids were repeatedly shown to be totally powerless to solve this problem (which is bullshit in a kids’ movie, especially one WITH MAGIC).
This created an EVEN BIGGER structural problem, which was that NEITHER thread could really carry the plot. The kids were onscreen for most of the movie (reasonably), but couldn’t advance the plot. Meanwhile, their father, who COULD advance the plot, COULDN’T be onscreen, because he was an adult who didn’t remember magic and couldn’t go on Mary-Poppins adventures with them!
To my mind, the best solution would be to have the kids actually solve the house problem. There’s all kinds of ways to do this that wouldn’t contradict the fundamental “it’s not their responsibility to take care of their father” theme. Here are just a few ideas:
- The bowl really was extremely valuable, or they find something else valuable in the attic and sell it
- Michael sees them trying to sell stuff from the attic and realizes that by trying to hang on to a symbol of success and masculine-breadwinner-ness that he can’t actually afford, he is harming his children; he will let the bank foreclose and find them a smaller, more affordable place
- The children put up flyers and host an art sale, raising money by selling Michael’s paintings (or, if you prefer, their belief in his art inspires Michael to raise money by selling his paintings)
I’m going to keep this part brief because otherwise I’m going to end up frothing at the mouth:
The fact that the deus ex machina of this movie is that Mr. Banks DID START A BANK ACCOUNT FOR MICHAEL WITH HIS TUPPENCE AND IT MADE ENORMOUS PROFITS is disgusting. Just disgusting.
The bank account explicitly represented:
- the British Empire’s military-economic complex (“You’ll be part of railways through Africa! Dams across the Niles!…Plantations of ripening tea!”)
- the false belief that making money is the primary purpose of life (“When gazing at a graph that shows the profits up, their little cup of joy should overflow”) AND a noble, almost sacred patriotic endeavor (“While stand the banks of England, England stands!”)
- MR. BANKS’S SHITTY, CONTROLLING, FUN-IS-MORALLY-SUSPECT PARENTING
Michael and Jane decided not to buy in, and Mr. Banks decided to respect their decisions. He shoved that tuppence into Mr. Dawes Sr.’s hand as a triumphant fuck you, if this is what you care about you can have it! moment.
Michael grew up to be an artist with a day job. Jane grew up to be an activist like her mom—but she grew up to do it professionally, to live alone and support herself on not a lot of money, instead of being a financially dependent, ornamental hearth-goddess like her mom was supposed to be.
(By the way, also don’t get me started on how even though in MP, Mr. Banks told the “man with a wooden leg named Smith” joke about “two wonderful young people named Jane and Michael,” the MPR script retconned the story to NOT INCLUDE JANE.)
To then turn around at the last minute and be like Haha jk, actually the only thing that will save you is that bank account…
There are no fucking words.
It also means that basically every action taken by anyone through the entire film was meaningless. Not ideal.
Which leads me to…
3. The house. The script needed to delve more deeply into the emotional significance of the house, and of losing the house.
As written, it mostly seemed like a metaphor for Michael and Jane’s downward mobility: their father was a successful upper-middle-class professional with a large house and 3 servants, and they are struggling to make ends meet in the gig economy.
Now, that’s a very real stress and a very real struggle that a lot of moviegoers right now can relate to. Like, I get that Mary Poppins was about its time, and MPR is about our time, and times have fucking changed. It’s okay to evolve and subvert and blah blah blah.
But like….here’s the problem. If the house represents the previous generation’s superior financial situation, and WE KNOW EXPLICITLY THAT IT WAS PAID FOR IN COLONIAL BLOOD and propped up by the underpaid emotional labor of working-class people—if the only way to keep the house is by tapping into the proceeds of that exploitation—why should the viewer root for Michael to keep it? Why does he deserve it?
This is especially stark when they’re standing next to Jack, who probably sleeps in a flophouse or a garret or something but for some inexplicable reason is literally risking his life to keep this giant house for strangers.
By the end of the movie the only thing that would have satisfied me was if they turned the damn house into a commune and invited all the lamplighters to live with them.
Which I mean, I think that would be an awesome ending. But of course it isn’t the ONLY acceptable ending. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “trying to keep the family home” as a plot! Predatory mortgages are bad! Obviously Jane and Michael deserve that house more than the bank does! I don’t want those kids to be in the street or anything.
They just needed to make the house represent something I could get behind. I needed to see that Jane and Michael loved the house. That the children loved the house! When Jane said, “Michael, this is our childhood home,” I needed to see what that meant, above and beyond a place where you don’t have to pay rent.
Jane and Michael were happy with their parents in that house, and now their parents are dead.
Michael was happy with his wife in that house, and now she’s dead.
The kids (I’m sorry, I don’t remember their names…Georgy, Annabel, and something, I think? WHY NO WINNIFRED YOU COWARDS?) were happy with their parents in that house, and now their mom is dead and their dad is…gone.
That’s a lot to want to hold on to. Show it to me!
Which brings me to…
4. Why were Mr. and Mrs. Banks barely mentioned? In my opinion this was a huge misstep and I fundamentally don’t get how it happened.
Jane and Michael’s memories of their parents are inextricably linked to their memories of, and feelings about, the house that is the focal point of the entire fucking movie!
Not only THAT, but we the audience already care about their parents! They were major characters in the first movie!
It would have been so easy. It would have been so thematic.
(In particular, I would have been so, so excited to hear Jane talk about her mom, and her mom’s influence on her, both positive and negative. It was RIGHT THERE! She became an activist who refused to marry!!)
In my opinion, the most pervasive AND the most interesting theme of the movie was the complexities, ambiguities, pain, and joy inherent in the question: who takes care of who?
- First and foremost: Michael is supposed to take care of his children, but they are taking care of him
- Jane is Michael’s older sister and wants to take care of him, but he feels that as the male head of the family he shouldn’t need her help
- Ellen, the maid, is paid to take care of the family, but now she is getting older and can’t really do her job, so they are taking her work on themselves because they care about her
- Jane’s job as a labor organizer is essentially her attempt to take care of London’s poor (and to make other elements of society take care of them as well)
- …but Jack is taking care of her by helping her keep her house, move her furniture, babysit her nieces and nephews, etc.
- the question of reciprocal responsibilities between employer and employee (and rich and poor more generally) comes up again and again, often in the context of the bank but not always
- Mary Poppins is there to take care of Michael’s kids, but actually she says straight up that she’s REALLY there to take care of Jane and Michael
- Even though Jane and Michael are adults (caretakers), they still need caretakers of their own
- Jane assumes Mary Poppins is there because she’s broke and needs a home, so letting her stay is Jane’s way of taking care of her
So coming back to the parents…there IS actually a time when it’s appropriate for children to take care of their parents. And that’s when the parents are old. But Mr. and Mrs. Banks will never be old. Jane and Michael will never have that joy/burden/responsibility.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO….
5. Mary Poppins should have stayed at the end.
I know it sounds extreme, but I’m telling you, I got SO EXCITED when I had this realization! It fixes EVERYTHING!!!!!! It subverts Mary Poppins tropes and makes the narrative fresh and surprising again! It gives meaning to the house! It ties a bow on the knotty problem of reciprocal care! IT’S PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY.
Because look, you guys: Who takes care of Mary Poppins?
No one, that’s who.
Mary Poppins is a magical construct of one-way emotional labor, and she’s fucking lonely.
I mean, it’s kind of great that apparently she’s been visiting Bert and Jack this whole time and just never said hi to Jane and Michael? I don’t want to erase the private life she clearly does have. But still. Remember when she left in the first movie? And she said, “And what would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I said good-bye to?” But we knew that part of the advertisement she answered was “Love us as a son and daughter” and she DID? Remember how she was CRYING?
Mary Poppins is Jane and Michael’s sole surviving parent, and that HAS to be part of the story.
Imagine if at the end of MPR, instead of Mary Poppins slipping quietly away from a family and a home that will never be truly hers, choking back tears, ready to set her hat at a jaunty angle and do it all again, and again, and again…
…The final scene showed Jane and Michael painting and scrubbing one of the spare rooms for her. (The choice of room could be significant too! Is it Michael’s studio and he’s gonna paint in the attic? Is it Kate’s old room? Is it his parents’ room? Is it the attic itself and they cleared away all the unnecessary detritus of their past in order to make space for what still mattered?)
Put Jack in there, not as useful labor but as part of the family—both Jane and Michael’s family, and Mary Poppins’s family—and it’s even better.
They say, “Mary Poppins, you don’t have to leave this time. Stay with us—not for money, not as a nanny with a little room adjoining the nursery, but as part of our family. This room is yours. It will always be yours even if you want to stay footloose and fancy-free. It’s a bit bare because we figured you’d want to decorate it yourself out of your carpet bag and also we are poor. But you can come whenever you like and stay as long as you like. Bert and your other friends can mail you letters at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. You have taken care of so many people, you have taken care of us, and we will take care of you back. We are here for you and we love you.”
THERE WOUDLN’T HAVE BEEN A DRY EYE IN THE FUCKING HOUSE.
(Bonus suggestion #6: Jack. It would have been so easy to give Jack a reason for helping them that didn’t feel like “rich-in-spirit poor person exists only to help rich-in-money person ALSO become rich-in-spirit”.
I mean, you can kind of make it work if you figure he’s babysitting the kids because he’s in love with Jane, and he’s helping save the house because he doesn’t want his girlfriend’s apartment to suddenly be full of her nosy family…BUT.
They seemed to want to erase the class differences in this movie…like, they seemed to be trying to acknowledge that nothing fundamentally divides Jack and Jane, or Ellen and the Bankses. But then they fell right back into the same bullshit.
Making Jack’s personal reasons for helping explicit is one option, but honestly I think they should have expanded Jane and Jack’s established relationship past “he had a crush on her when they were kids but they haven’t spoken since”. If their relationship felt mutual (ooh, thematic!), then him helping her would be only natural. A few options:
- Jack (and Bert, obviously) inspired Jane to became a labor organizer in the first place (probably true anyway, but like, SAY IT)
- They have been allies on a campaign to improve conditions for lamplighters
- They have rooms in the same cheap boarding house (this could be a friends-to-lovers thing OR a secret-mutual-pining-from-afar thing)
- Evil Banker Colin Firth has also been oppressing him/lamplighters and Jane has been trying to help him/them (either using her Connections or through activism) (wouldn’t the whole scene where they go to try to beg Colin Firth to extend their loan have been so much better if he and Jane already had a history of conflict in her professional capacity??)
It writes itself, really.
What do you think? How would you improve the Mary Poppins Returns script?
I began this series to celebrate my new book doctoring and research assistance freelance business, Rose Does the Research.
I promise if you hire me, I will give you much gentler feedback than this!