Mary Poppins Returns

The film Saving Mr. Banks was all about how hard Walt Disney had to work to persuade author P.L Travers to let him make Mary Poppins. I wonder if one day we’ll get a film about how they tried and failed to get Julie Andrews to appear in this movie. There is a character at the end of Mary Poppins Returns that was so obviously written for her but for whatever reason she respectfully decided to give the whole thing a wide berth.

It’s a shame Andrews stayed away because Mary Poppins Returns is lovely and unlike the other big films we’ve seen scheduled for an end of year release over the last two decades; the Lord of Rings, the Harry Potters and the Star Wars, it is practically perfect for a Christmas trip to the cinema. It feels contemporary but, just as it should, it takes you back to a different age of cinema. Not back to the sixties maybe but certainly to a time before Hobbits, wizards, Jedi, threat, violence, complicated mythology and sequels dominated the December and January box office. I love all of those films of course but I am thrilled to see a huge family focused event movie taking centre stage right now. I went to see it with my wife and three daughters yesterday and it was a wonderful, wonderful start to the holidays.

The question of whether this Mary Poppins film is as good as the original is redundant. We’ve not grown up with this one so ask me how they compare when I’ve got decades of affection built up for this one too. It isn’t as witty as the 1964 movie but it does have some fantastic musical sequences that in some cases exceed what we saw before. It also has another great central performance and it once again features the ever ebullient Dick Van Dyke. (The cameo they created for Van Dyke was better than what they wrote for Andrews, maybe this was the issue. Karen Dotrice who played young Jane Banks is here too but you’d be forgiven for not recognising her.)

Let’s start with Emily Blunt’s turn in the iconic title role. Julie Andrews has said she chose not to do this film as she didn’t want to distract from Blunt’s performance but she needn’t have worried; Emily Blunt totally owns the part. Blunt has been better and so had Andrews but what they both do in these films is show what incredible all round performers they are. There are other actors working today who could have given Mary Poppins the charm, wry authority and affectionate superiority the character needs but there aren’t many that could sing and dance with the same level of show(o)manship. Emily Blunt may not have Julie Andrews’ singing voice but when it comes to the big musical numbers she is at the very least her equal. (Following an operation on her throat Julie Andrews doesn’t have Julie Andrews’ singing voice any more either. Since she was being offered a small singing part I sadly suspect that this may partly be why she declined to appear.)

Mary Poppins was built around a couple of extended song and dance scenes; Step in Time and Jolly Holiday/Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Yes, there are other songs and some have nice little effects sequences but these are undeniably the big two. Both of these scenes are emulated in this new film. Trip a Little Light Fantastic replaces Dick Van Dyke’s Bert and his sooty suit and flat capped sweeps with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack and a troop of sooty suit and flat capped lamp lighters. Miranda is good throughout but unlike Blunt he cannot measure up to his 1964 equivalent (few could). The dancers around him are superb though and the sequence is a delight. It is interesting to note that this new dance is quite frantically edited together from dozens of shots. This may well be the way things are done now but much of the brilliance of Step in Time was in how rarely the camera cut away and that puts it a step ahead.

The highlight of Mary Poppins Returns though is the song A Cover is Not the Book and it might be the best number from either movie. It sees the two leads sashay, shimmy, gavotte, twirl and tap alongside a chorus of cartoon creatures including but certainly not limited to some barnyard animals and a few bow tied penguins. It is magnificent. The music and lyrics are an old school joy as well, beautifully celebrating music hall traditions with a series of verses encouraging this cinema audience to train their curiosity with good old fashioned books.

This pair of song and dance numbers are not the only places in which this new film follows the beats of its predecessor. We also get musical moments of parental reflection in the Banks family home, there are trips to a magical relative in need of assistance (this time cousin Topsy not Uncle Albert) and we visit the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank again. The new children, the offspring of a now grown up Michael Banks, also first learn of Mary Poppins’ particular nannying style whilst upstairs in their nursery where there is a great gag with a dolphin. There is even a brief moment where they run past the old lady who feeds the birds on the steps of St. Paul’s. (She appeared to be asleep. I hope that’s the explanation for her motionless body but this is set during the Great Slump so you never know.)

With all of this familiarity though the film still doesn’t come over as a retread. It doesn’t quite have the same feel as the first film and this helps it stand apart. It somehow feels both up to date and retro. I am a real fan of the original movie and I don’t know if this better qualifies me to judge this one or not. I have to admit that when it was first announced I thought it a terrible idea but in the end I loved it. Whatever Andrews’ motivation for staying away the good news is that you definitely shouldn’t. I’m thrilled Mary Poppins has returned and I look forward to seeing her back again in another fifty four years (when I’ll be only a little older than Dick Van Dyke is now so I could well make it.)

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The Ripley Factor:

From the second P.L Travers put pen to paper Mary Poppins has been a feminist hero in a patriarchal age. This is a woman who has never bent to the will of the man. The ladies around her though are more problematic. The handling of the suffragette movement was interesting in the first film, making Mrs. Banks both an equality warrior and a neglectful mother. In turn this new film plays into the Rebecca Principle where one of the most significant women’s greatest contribution to the plot is being dead before it even starts. Fortunately Emily Mortimer’s grown up Jane is a strong and independent woman who has inherited her mothers’ passion for social rights and eldest daughter Anabel is a bit of an action hero too so there are plenty of positive role models for young girls.

.

Is this one for the kids?

Forever.

…………………….

As an extra little Christmas present here are those lyrics to that excellent, and very slightly saucy, vaudeville song in full:

.

Uncle Goodenberg was a bookworm

And he lived on Charring Cross

The memory of his volumes brings a smile

He would read me lots of stories

When he wasn’t on the sauce

Now I’d like to share the wisdom

Of my favourite bibliophile

He said a

Cover is not the book

So open it up and take a look

‘Cause under the cover one discovers

That the king maybe a crook

Chapter titles are like signs

And if you read between the lines

You’ll find your first impression was mistook

For a cover is nice

But a cover is not the book

.

“Mary Poppins, could you give us an example?”

“Certainly”

.

Nelly Rebitta was made of wood

But what could not be seen was though

A trunk up top was barren

While her roots were lush and green

So in Spring when Mr. Hickery saw her blossoms blooming there

He took fruit despite her bark

And now there’s seedlings everywhere

Which proves that

A cover is not the book

So open it up and take a look

‘Cause under the cover one discovers

That the king maybe a crook

Chapter titles are like signs

And if you read between the lines

You’ll find your first impression was mistook

For a cover is nice

But a cover is not the book.

.

“Should we do the one about the wealthy widow?”

“Ooh, by all means”

“Always loved that one”

“Well, go on then”

.

Lady Highest of Macaw

Brought all her treasures to a reef

Where she only wore a smile

Plus two feathers, and a leaf

So no one tried to rob her

‘Cause she barely wore a stitch

For when you’re in your birthday suit

There ain’t much there to show you’re rich

Oh, a cover is not the book

So open it up and take a look

‘Cause under the cover one discovers

That the king maybe a crook

Tarulalee, tarurala, tarulalee, tara-ta-ta

You’ll find your first impression was mistook (ya-da-da-da)

For a cover is nice

But a cover is not the book

.

“Oh give us the one about that dirty rascal, why don’t ya”

“Isn’t that one a bit long?”

“Well the quicker you’re into it, the quicker you’re out of it”

.

Once upon a time

In a nursery rhyme

There was a castle with a king

Hiding in a wing

‘Cause he never went to school to learn a single thing

He had scepters and swords

And a parliament of lords

But on the inside he was sad

Egad!

Because he never had a wisdom for numbers

A wisdom for words

Though his crown was quite immense

His brain was smaller that a bird’s

So the queen of the nation

Made a royal proclamation

“To the Missus and the Messers

The more or lessers

Bring me all the land’s professors”

Then she went to the hair dressers

And they came from the east

And they came from the south

From each college they poured knowledge

From their brains into his mouth

But the king couldn’t learn

So each professor met their fate

For the queen had their heads removed

And placed upon the gate

And on that date

I state their wives all got a note

Their mate was now the late great

But then suddenly one day

A stranger started in to sing

He said “I’m the dirty rascal

And I’m here to teach the king”

And the queen clutched her jewels

For she hated royal fools

But this fool had some rules

They really ought to teach in schools

Like you’ll be a happy king

If you enjoy the things you’ve got

You should never try to be

The kind of person that you’re not

So they sang and they laughed

For the king had found a friend

And they ran onto a rainbow for

The story’s perfect end

So the moral is you mustn’t let

The outside be the guide

For it’s not so cut and dried

Well unless it’s Dr. Jekyll

Then you better hide

Petrified

No, the truth can’t be denied

As I now have testified

All that really counts and matters

Is the special stuff inside.

.

“He did it!”

.

Oh, a cover is not the book

So open it up and take a look

Cause under the cover one discovers

That the king maybe a crook

So please listen to what we’ve said

And open up a book tonight in bed

So one more time before we get the hook (sing it out strong!)

A cover is nice (Please take our advice)

A cover is nice (Or you’ll pay the price)

A cover is nice

But a cover is not the book

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