Mary Poppins Returns | Poppins & Politics

Squawking umbrellas, enchanted banisters and a concerning variety of tweed, it can only mean one thing: Mary Poppins has descended from the heavens upon jolly Ole London Town once again.  Disney’s follow up to the 1964 classic sees our beloved airborne nanny return to the Banks family 20 years on.  Though with Jane and Michael all grown up, it’s his three kids who are now in need of babysitting.

With new songs and mostly new faces, the sequel is set up to be the perfect accompaniment to the seasonal tsunami of tinsel and eggnog.  Though between the chim cher-ees and chim-cher-oos, where tuppence be the word among many a well fed bird, there’s something in the air this time around, not a kite nor a cloud, but a fog to be found.  “There’s things ‘alf in shadow and ‘alfway in light” and much like Britain’s own national strife there’s them to the left and them to the right.

When our small screens are ever aglow with Brexit debate, mishap and setbacks, it’s the cinema screens which seem the perfect portal to find refuge.  But no film – no matter how escapist its intent- is created in a vacuum. ‘Film’ by its definition is a reaction: that which occurs when a celluloid strip is exposed to light,  but it also applies to the work itself, a product of the culture in which it’s made, a reaction to the light of day.

Coming off the success of Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins Returns is the latest Mouse House property to get the reboot/rehash/reheat.  Directed by Rob Marshall and penned by David Magee, the sequel proves a faithful retelling of the original – perhaps to its own detriment – with superficial tweaks worked in.  There’s dapperly dressed penguins, bottomless bubblebaths, and cobblestone streets chirping with cockney witticism, but in today’s climate, it’s a reading of the film’s political undertones that resonate the most.  Unintended or undercover yet somehow unavoidable, the implications echo in our heads longer than any tune could hope.


In the film’s closing crescendo which sees the Banks family race against the stroke of midnight in order to save their family house from repossession, it’s Lin Manuel Miranda’s band of merry lamplighters who attempt to scale and pull back the hands of Big Ben.  But of course it’s Mary Poppins – in full Union Jack coloured attire – who leapfrogs ahead, floating atop the iconic landmark to literally turn back time.  As we learn during the film’s opening, this is more than just a house at stake, it’s their home, and has been for as long as Michael and Jane can remember.  Filled with the intimacy of memory, 17 Cherry Tree Lane is a sanctuary, a source of the family’s historical identity and not to mention its place in our collective childhood as viewers of the original.

As if a reflection of the Brexit mood through American eyes, the film evokes a national nostalgia which is then foregrounded by its climax:  A reversal of power takes place where Britain’s upper class are refused the right to dictate others’ identity.  The payoff sees Jane and Michael not only retain their family home but inherit a small fortune along with it.  In the final sequence which soon follows, we witness the Banks family, no more the ragamuffin quintet we saw first but now decked out to the nines with smiles to match.  It’s a happy ending by means of a monetary reward, the family have leaped to the upper echelon of society and bonded as a result.  Not only have our characters got what they needed – love and the wonder of imagination – they’ve gotten exactly what they wanted.

Taking all that into account, the film’s morals could be said to explore and reinforce the hopeful narrative that was once promised to ‘Leave’ voters: take back control, preserve your nation’s identity and the future will be bright.  And by turning back the clocks to an idealised past, we get just that. “Big Ben is finally on time”, chimes Admiral Boom in a moment of wistful pride as his nation finally ticks to the right tock.

Intriguingly, the lasting image throughout Mary Poppins Returns is that of the Edwardian street lamp, in-fact it’s the film’s very opening shot: centre framed, low angled, this flame doesn’t flicker, it shines.  Perhaps a mere accessory to Disney’s fetishisation of Britishness or a spark fueling hope, a beacon leading the way for those of us lost in the London fog.

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