Practically perfect in every way. If there was a telling quote to sum up the nostalgic glow that radiates from Mary Poppins Returns, that would be it.
Who would even have imagined we would be here? Mary Poppins is without doubt the most popular and beloved live action Disney production of the 20th century, and its significance as a piece of family friendly culture that transcends America to the UK and beyond is unparalleled. It helped make a star of Dame Julie Andrews and netted her an Academy Award in 1965. It saw Dick van Dyke sport an English accent he has been both mocked and adored for over half a century. It featured songs, such as ‘Step In Time’ and ‘Supercalifragolisticexpialidotious’ which have been immortalised by several generations of school children and adults. Mary Poppins, for millions, represents the magic of childhood, and a childhood exposure to cinema.
The fact Robert Stevenson’s original film even exists is a curiosity of fate itself, given the author of the Mary Poppins source material, P. L. Travers, struggled with the ‘Disneyfication’ of her subject matter. If you want the story of how Walt Disney came to convince Travers of the magic in the film he wanted to produce, watch John Lee Hancock’s delightful Saving Mr. Banks, but it was a significant challenge. Disney is a problematic figure to history now in many ways, despite the pillar of joy he built his empire on, but he was right about the film Stevenson ended up making. Mary Poppins may not have been immortalised as Travers imagined her, but she became, and remained, one of the strangest and beloved female characters in the history of motion pictures.
Mary Poppins Returns, then, is a challenge on multiple fronts. How do you replicate a film so resolutely of its time while equally outside of it? How do you replace Andrews or Van Dyke? How do you beat the quirkiness of a picture which blended live action with animation, musical show stoppers, and a thematic reach balancing childhood, social mobility and capitalism (not to mention the looming spectre of war)? Mary Poppins Returns has the answer, and it’s really quite simple.