Mary Poppins Returns was the last film I saw in 2018 and it became a surprise entry into my list of favorite films of the year. I didn’t really have particularly high hopes going in, and if it hadn’t had Lin-Manuel Miranda in it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. But there I was.
And my one-line review would be “It was as good as it had to be” – which sounds like faint praise, but it really isn’t. MPR was a very good MP movie. Maybe by the time we get to Mary Poppins Rises or Mary Poppins Rides Again, we’ll need a gritty reboot of the series, but for this sequel the creators went for the entirely sensible – if brave – idea of trying to catch some of the magic of the first movie. And, for me, they just about reached the very high bar they set themselves. A couple of the songs will live in my head for the next year, LMM’s accent paid a very committed homage to the traditions of Dick Van Dyke himself…and Emily Blunt’s portrayal of the great nanny is wonderful. She is not the Julie Andrews Mary Poppins – she’s a little naughtier, a little edgier, a little more dangerous in a very entertaining way, but still recognizably Mary Poppins.
But none of this is the most interesting thing about Mary Poppins Returns. The most interesting thing is how it seems to have reached into the hearts of people and twisted until they surrendered. The UK film critic Mark Kermode talks about his very emotional reaction to the movie here. The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum said this:
And me? I was crying in the first 20 minutes. And then again before the end. And why? We’re back to the running themes of much of this blog: nostalgia and grief.
When my dad died, one of the things he left behind was his wall of Disney movies: a built-in bookcase of VHS tapes that no one could use and no charity or second-hand shop really wanted. Most of the movies were “Disney Classics”. My dad liked movies – mostly westerns. He loved John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. But he was also the one who took me to see Star Wars and Superman – the two movies that inspired my love of cinema. And he was the one who showed me The Jungle Book and Bambi. When the VCR became a household staple, he made sure to stock up on every Disney video as it came out. And as the grandkids started coming along, the collection just kept getting bigger.
Alongside the classic animations, live-action-and-cartoon movies like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and, yes, Mary Poppins sat high on our list. Both of these movies are (a) full of very English characters and (b) include children in very central roles. As such, from my current vantage point in Austin, Texas, the feelings of nostalgia they evoke are large and significant. MPR taps right into this feeling…and adds an extra twist with a layer of deceased-parent grief. It’s a powerful combination.
So, movies can be complicated; how we feel about them can also be complicated and surprising. We carry our feelings for others in our memories and those memories can be forever intertwined with the things we shared with those we have lost.
And that’s why, in the dark at Alamo Drafthouse this Christmas, when the tone of Mary Poppins Returns hit me just right, I felt tears running down my face. And there can be no higher praise than that.