Mary Poppins Returns

My grandfather died a year ago. His death wasn’t unexpected. He’d been sick for a while, and we watched him slowly deteriorate. Pop was never one to express much emotion—unless you stood with his front door open letting out the air conditioning—so he wasn’t ever in visible pain, but we knew living had become a struggle for him and for my grandmother, Granny, a retired nurse who cared for him. So it wasn’t exactly a relief when he died, death is never that, but it was a release of sorts, a melancholy kind of letting go.

I thought about Pop and Granny a lot while I watched Mary Poppins Returns, Disney’s recent sequel to the 1964, Walt-era classic. The title says it all, really. In this direct sequel, Mary Poppins shows up again to help the Banks family in a time of distress. This time Michael Banks (Ben “dish rag” Whishaw), a now adult widower with three small children, is in financial distress during Britain’s Great Depression, termed “The Slump.” Emily Blunt is a prickly, pleasant “Mary Poppins.” Lin-Manuel Miranda is a terrific “Jack,” this movie’s version of chimney sweep “Burt.” Another familiar face shows up near the end, does a little soft shoe, and brings a tear to your eye.

Mary Poppins Returns is perhaps a bit over-concerned with calling back to the original film, but then again, there’s something appropriate about recurrences in a story that deals explicitly with the cyclical nature of life in which children become adults with children and have to recover the wide-eyed hope that buoyed them when they were young, a feat ever more impressive in the face of life’s toughest challenges, like the loss of a spouse or a job or a home.

How to reckon with the grief that accompanies loss is the driving theme of Mary Poppins Returns, and I’m sure that’s a key reason I thought a lot about my late grandfather while I watched it. I also watched the original film over and over again when I was a small child at my grandparents’ house lying on a pallet of blankets on their living room floor. Granny loves the movie, and Pop, if he wasn’t out working in his garden or shop, was never far from the TV.

The Banks family is reconciling themselves to the recent loss of their wife and mother as well as trying to save the family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane from being repossessed by the bank where the elder Mr. Banks worked and where his son, Michael, now works. Mary Poppins helps them learn they haven’t lost their wife and mother entirely, whether or not they lose the house. The children find evidence of their mother’s life all around their home. Michael sees his late wife in his children’s faces.

Isn’t that exactly right? When Pop was alive, he was only in his recliner in his house in rural Texas. Now I see him in the frames of the lanky sailors walking along the shore in San Diego as I ride my bike around the bay the day after Christmas—Pop was a Navy man, once stationed in San Diego. I see him in the way my father-in-law wears his suspenders the same as Pop did. I hear his voice booming in my chest as I clear the night from my lungs when I wake up in the morning. Mary Poppins’ magic is a matter of perception, mainly. It’s about learning to see things differently – bath time as a trip to the bottom of the sea, a night lost in the fog as a dance with lamp-lighters, the in-person absence of a loved one as the dispersed presence of her or him into every aspect of life.

Yes, there’s a touch of sadness in that. Achieving that kind of enchanted vision requires swallowing a bit of resignation alongside. Accept the bad in order to realize the good. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. That’s always been Mary Poppins’ way – in the original film, in the books by P.L. Travers that called her to life, and in this film as well. Is she a fairy? A witch? Who knows? She’s enchanting, and her’s is a melancholy magic, the stuff of hope, practical tricks which seem fanciful that help you hold on in hard times. A lark. A light. A bit of discipline. A knowing nudge. She comes and goes with a smile and a sigh.