When I first heard that there would be another Mary Poppins movie made in 2018, I wasn’t sure what to think. Being a lifelong devotee of the original film, I was hard-pressed to imagine anyone who could fill the gigantic shoes of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, or if anyone even had the right to try. Early mumblings in the classic film community about Mary Poppins Returns were skeptical, cautious. Some said they wouldn’t see it. Some said they were willing to give it a chance, but held low expectations.
I always fell somewhat into the second camp. I brightened to hear that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be playing the Bert character (perfect casting, I felt), but I remained on my guard. I was convinced that remaking Mary Poppins at all was a futile effort.
I went to see the film yesterday afternoon at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley. I went in with an open and curious mind, looking forward to seeing how the filmmakers and actors handled the seemingly insurmountable task of a Mary Poppins remake. But immediately, I understood what this movie is about. Mary Poppins Returns is not a remake at all–but rather a piece of much-needed escapism for 2018 audiences, in a world that desperately needs it.
Movies have always served the social needs of their time. In moments of national crisis, they have served to allay fears, provide comfort, or commiserate with worries. Frequently, the messages were subtle. In 1944, at the height of World War II, Meet Me In St. Louis brought wartime viewers back to 1903 St. Louis, when things were easier, life was slower, and there was no war. Though the film takes place 40 years prior, the message was clear. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was really for the soldiers, and the American people as a whole.
Mary Poppins was released in 1964, as the United States faced dire challenges. With the Vietnam War heating up, the Civil Rights Movement at its peak, Russia and the United States facing off and John F. Kennedy recently assassinated, adults and children needed to be taken away from their circumstances. Mary Poppins‘ fantastical escape into 1910 London and a land of chalk drawings, cartoons, and magical nannies provided just that opportunity.
So it is, too, with Mary Poppins Returns. On most days, we are pummeled with the stress of a neverending news cycle, and the realities of a world that frequently feels like it’s crumbling beneath our feet. A retreat into escapist entertainment is very much in line with the cinematic and cultural history of the United States, and very necessary.
In 1964, the merging of cartoon and real-life characters was a state-of-the-art production process. Though not a new technology, it was a difficult one, imperfect and rarely used, and emblematic of a large budget production. Reviews upon its release commended the mixing of live action and animation as “immense,” and the Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Scheuer noted that Disney had been trying to perfect the process for the past 40 years, and dared to shoot 400 Mary Poppins scenes using it.
In 2018, we have long since moved on. Computer animation is the norm now–we have seen the rise of Pixar, of Avatar, and other processes that try to make moviegoing seem as true to life as possible. Mary Poppins Returns goes the other way. Using a similar cel animation process combined with live action that was advanced and awe-inspiring in 1964, director Rob Marshall has created an air of nostalgia and simplicity. The effect is that the audience is thrown back to a time when moviemaking didn’t have to feel true to life, when suspension of disbelief was valued over meticulous true-to-life detail. And for many of us, that means a throwback to our childhood moviegoing experiences–evoking memories of the cel-animated Disney movies that defined the studio through the 1990s and early 2000s. Worries are tossed to the wind, and the audience is engulfed by pure fantasy.
In these trying times, we as a society would do well to learn once again how to appreciate escapist entertainment such as the kind Mary Poppins, and Mary Poppins Returns offers. It is a cultural necessity in our efforts to deal with daily life, and a panacea that this troubled world dearly needs.