3/10 The original Mary Poppins was a technical marvel, one that reinvigorated a dying genre and would be held unto this day as the crowning triumph of Disney productions. It was sold and resold and resold again on the strength of how timely and cutting-edge it was in 1964.
But now is not 1964.
Twenty-five years after the events of Mary Poppins, the Great Depression is in full swing, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now a young widower with three children of his own, is in danger of losing the house. Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to take care of the children while he searches for a way to pay off the mortgage.
Much like the 1964 classic, Mary Poppins Returns focuses on the immortal witch-nanny expanding her charges’ minds. There’s also some free-style since they got Lin-Manuel Miranda onboard and a love subplot between his character and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) because somebody thought that was necessary, but it’s mostly whimsical musical numbers. The movie features full song and dance routines on topics such as public lighting being helpful infrastructure and how Poppins’ cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep), hates Wednesdays.
Yeah, it’s pretty lame.
The movie is as close a recreation as possible to the original, with Jack the lamplighter (Miranda) instead of a chimneysweep and a slightly different plot surrounding the Banks’ economic hardship to account for the in-universe timeskip. It feels dated and flat and doesn’t work at all in this era where we expect children’s movies to carry much weightier themes and musicals to have much more visual appeal.
The question with Mary Poppins Returns isn’t whether or not it’s good. It isn’t. It was clearly made by a team that was not able or willing to turn a critical eye to the original and identify how the genres have changed, how society has changed and what needed to be modernized about the film – outside of surface-level things like making sure Miranda and Streep found their way into the cast. It’s an entirely accurate recreation of the 1964 original, which was part of a musical genre that was thriving in its time, but completely extinct now.
So the question with Mary Poppins Returns becomes one about why the original is considered such a classic.
With the advent of talkies in the late 1920s, simple, direct translations of Broadway musicals were a large part of how studios made their money in the early era of cinema, but big bombastic musicals mostly died out over the course of the 1960s. The original Mary Poppins, along with My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, was actually a part of the genre’s extended death rattle – you can hear much, much more about that, and how it relates to current trends in superhero movies, here.
But the importance of Mary Poppins from the perspective of its individual studio, Disney, cannot be overstated. The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, the most in Disney’s history – even today, the record for nominations received by a single film is a three-way tie with 14 – and was the first and only Disney film nominated for Best Picture within Walt Disney’s lifetime. He died two years later.
Pretty much the only person who didn’t like the movie was P.L. Travers, who wrote the series of books on which it was based and burst into angry tears at the film’s premier over the animated sequences, which she hated. Disney was personally involved in courting her to approve a sequel, and there were several attempts made after his death, but no progress was ever made until Travers’ own death in 1996, and even then, it took the Travers estate decades to come around to the idea.
While all of this was going on, Disney as a company continued to profit from its crown jewel. The film was sent back into theaters in 1973 for the company’s 50th anniversary, and then again in 1980. Also starting in 1980, the film was released on home media no less than eight different times, including three separate 40th, 45th and 50th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray releases, the most recent being in 2013.
When a family friendly movie has this degree of success and becomes one of the first filmgoing experiences for a large number of young viewers, it becomes ingrained in those viewers’ identities. They share it with their children, and shell out their own money for it when they have the opportunity. This type of nostalgia exists and is created completely independently of whatever makes a movie successful at the time of its release. Mary Poppins was highly successful in its time, but the reasons for that success do not matter even a little bit when all you’re selling is the fact of that previous success.
All of this is intertwined with the current spate of live-action remakes of Disney classics that was unexpectedly kicked off by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010, a series that started as significant rearrangements of the associated properties but quickly got safer as time went on, with 2015’s Cinderella and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast leaving me actively wondering why they were made in the first place, and also making oodles of money at the box office – the films finished no. 9 and no. 2, respectively, in their years’ domestic charts.
And while all of this is happening, the dichotomy of safe reboots/remakes/sequels versus risky ones is playing out in a dramatic way with the Star Wars movies, also owned by Disney, but let’s not get too deep into that can of worms.
Remakes trump re-releases
Mary Poppins Returns falls decidedly on the Cinderella/Beauty and the Beast side of the scale – what exactly is the point of making a movie that’s already been made? Money.
It might seem much cheaper to simply re-release classics – Mary Poppins Returns, somehow, managed to make fancy dresses, green screen and some fishing line cost an eye-popping $130 million, and Disney consistently spends staggering amounts of money on these reboot/remake/sequel mashup things – but they’ve already tried that, and it didn’t really work. In the wake of Avatar and theaters across the country retrofitting 3D technology, Disney and other studios re-released five different classics in 3D in just under a calendar year from September 2011 to 2012 – the chart includes a 2009 re-release of the Toy Story movies, but we’ll ignore that for simplicity’s sake.
The first of these, The Lion King, saw the best results, earning $94.2 million over its run, but the whole venture was quickly abandoned. Even with the most popular films in history, the Star Wars franchise, Fox couldn’t find success that justified the re-releases – the studio announced plans to re-release all six movies in 3D, but unfortunately began with the much-hated prequel trilogy, and only ended up actually releasing The Phantom Menace before quietly ending the initiative. The series’ rights would be sold to Disney that October.
These five re-releases opened at no. 1, 2, 4, 3 and 2 again at the box office, earning just $254.3 million between them. All of these re-releases combined would have been good for no. 8 domestic in 2012.
Lined up directly against each other in very recent history, sequels and remakes have absolutely annihilated re-releases at the box office.
Unchanging movies in changing times
So in order to make the kind of money that Disney wants to make here, yes, an entirely new production is necessary, and no, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad that production is to either the company or most viewers who pay to see Mary Poppins Returns, who are doing so likely for either nostalgia or as likely the safest option for an outing with children in tow – Ralph Breaks the Internet and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch are both a month old at this point, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might still not be viewed as suitable for the very young.
But it is just a little incredible to think that, of the properties competing with Mary Poppins Returns, two are based on characters that were just 7 and 2 years old when the original released in theaters and two of them are animated with computer technology that was first pioneered when the original was 30 years old, to say nothing of the cutting edge stuff involved with Spider-Verse.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.