The Walt Disney Corporation isn’t in the risk-taking business. Disney likes a sure thing – which is why it spent billions acquiring Star Wars and then rebooted the lightsaber franchise with a 2015 movie that played out as a beat-for-beat retread of the original space opera.
But it has embarked on the mother of all gambles with its big Christmas 2018 release. Mary Poppins Returns, released here on December 21, is a sequel to a film beloved by generations. Anything less than a perfect landing and Poppins 2.0 – set in the 30s and featuring grown-up versions of naughty siblings Jane and Michael Banks – will be accused of stomping all over the childhoods of millions.
The problem is that Mary Poppins Returns, in which Emily Blunt inherits the Julie Andrews role of the flying childminder, animal-whisperer and neat-freak, must also distance itself to a degree from the earlier movie. That’s because Mary Poppins was utterly a product of its time – that time being the mid-60s.
Watched today, Mary Poppins might be kindly described as problematic. Poppins herself is snippy and self regarding (Andrews could sing and dance, but perhaps the talent that burned most brightly on screen was her ability to look pleased with herself).
Yet it’s the portrayal of the Banks family and their dysfunctional home life that really sets alarms whirring. To paint Mr Banks (David Tomlinson) as a mess – a careerist done in by his lust for the material – was, by the standards of the time, reasonably progressive. However, it is not very subtly implied that his suffragette wife Winifred – mother to Jane and Michael – was neglecting her duties as a parent by protesting in the streets rather than toiling in the kitchen.
She is a good feminist and a bad mother – a message that sat uneasily in 1964 and is simply unthinkable in 2018. Nor do the new film-makers really have the option of bypassing the first movie and going back to PL Travers’ original books.
That’s because Mary Poppins, the literary creation, was in many ways the opposite of what Disney put on screen. If the eponymous nanny comes off slightly smug when portrayed by Andrews, the Travers version is practically monstrous.
Consider, for instance, her rampant inverted snobbery. In the books, she is stoutly working class – her patter more Dick Van Dyke dancing around a chimney than Julie Andrews (she refers to sparrows as “sparrers”).
And she is slyly disdainful of the Banks family and their petite bourgeois ways. Here she is enthusiastically assisted by the authorial voice of Travers, who describes the Banks as living beyond their means in one of London’s posher neighbourhoods and struggling to keep up with their better-off neighbours.
This Mary Poppins could be cruel as well as inspirational. The bird-woman immortalised in ‘Feed The Birds’ in the film is looked down on by the nanny, who believes the best place for a pigeon is in a pie. “Feed the birds,” she says, “and what have you got? Fat birds!”
Travers was no fan of Disney or his picture. She found Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins glib and silly. As an Australian of Irish heritage, she may also have considered it ironic than her rather waspish caricature of middle class striving in Edwardian England – as immortalised by a crass American – should become one of the great British cultural exports of the 20th century.
Travers was the son of Robert Travers Goff, an alcoholic London-born bank manager whose father, Henry Goff, was from Carne, a village near Rosslare in Wexford. Growing up in rural Queensland, north of Brisbane, she became obsessed with Irish mythology and, in particular, WB Yeats’ work reviving the tradition.
Which is why, when she moved to London in 1924, she sent her early writings to Armagh-born intellectual AE Russell for publication in his journal, The Irish Statesman. He accepted her work and also ushered her into his circle of amateur occultists and spiritualists. Thus she finally met her idol, Yeats.
Theirs was, even by the standards of Edwardian mystics, an unlikely friendship – the esoteric Sligo-man and the somewhat crabby Australian. But they appear to have hit it off, and on at least one occasion, Travers is said to have serenaded Yeats with his own poetry (he was reportedly very deaf and may have just smiled and nodded).
Russell became a mentor as well as friend and publisher. It was he who encouraged her to write prose alongside poetry and to embrace her love of the fantastical. Shortly afterward, in 1926, she published her first Mary Poppins story. Her inspiration was an eccentric relative back in Australia. Aunt Ellie lived with her two dogs, hefted about a carpet-bag and was firm, to the point of harsh, with children. Travers’ opinion of Aunt Ellie is not known – and it is equally unclear whether she really liked Poppins.
The nanny of the books is obsessed with the ticking clock of mortality and feels only vaguely connected to the real world (she continually looks in mirrors, not to admire herself but because of the fear she might fade away). At one point, her cousin once removed – a giant snake – turns up and presents her, as a birthday present, its recently shed skin. Later, they have a conversation about death and its immutability. Sleep well, kids!
Giant, death-fixated snakes will almost certainly not feature in Mary Poppins Returns. Indeed, as the film’s director Robert Marshall acknowledged, the new movie must find a way to appeal to modern audiences whilst honouring the beloved 1964 film – and just maybe acknowledge the twinkle of darkness that defined Travers’ original vision.
“It was the hardest project I’ve ever done because it was literally like three movies in one,” said Marshall at the premier in Los Angeles. “We were creating an original musical, and this very sort of delicate balancing act of paying homage to the first film but creating something completely new. That was a challenge the entire time.”
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