Mary Poppins Returns trips a little light fantastic

Those expecting a whimsical tale should go with caution, Mary Poppins Returns certainly offers fantasy and nostalgia but also offers a scathing critique of the banking industry. Set in the 1930s, the economic environment of Mary Poppins Returns shares much in common with today’s post-GFC world, while still offering all the colour and catchy tunes to trigger the imagination of its predecessor.

Return of the old and offering new

Once again, the Banks children are in need of Mary Poppins’(Emily Blunt) gentle and firm guidance to remind them of what’s important. This time, Michael (Ben Wishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) – now adults – need help navigating the challenges of their world – bank foreclosure on the house, friendships and grief. In turn, Michael’s children, Anabel, John and Georgie (Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson), are in dire need of the chance to simply be children after the recent loss of their mother.

The new film parallels and references the original in many ways. Where the original opened with Bert singing, the new version opens with his apprentice, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who forms the same role as ‘sidekick and supporter’ of Mary Poppins throughout the film. The ballad ‘Feed the birds’ finds its equal in ‘Where the lost things go’, while ‘Trip a little light fantastic’ mimics ‘Step in time’, a song and dance extravaganza using lamp lighters instead of chimney sweeps. The audience also sees some direct nods to the original such as the return of the dancing penguins, Mary’s reflection in the mirror, Michael’s kite which has somehow survived the period of time to his children or even the fate of the original tuppence Michael had wanted to feed the birds with.

It is also a source of joy that Admiral Boom is alive and still firing off his canons to mark the hour.

Banks: family v industry

While children will simply enjoy the story, adults will note the pointed comment on the banking industry. Michael Banks is now an employee of The Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where once his own father worked. Just as he once infuriated his father with a lack of interest and trust in the bank, his children now offer the same frustration for him – though with greater cause. The Banks family are at risk of foreclosure on their home and the outwardly genial but corrupt Bank President, William ‘Weatherall’ Wilkins (Colin Firth). To quote one of the film’s songs: “The cover is not the book” when it comes to Wilkins.

At one point, Wilkins even comments on how good the market downturn has been for the bank through client foreclosures and his expectation to get hold of the Banks home by unfairly insisting the balance of the mortgage be paid in full by midnight Friday, despite the original loan terms being for longer. Wilkins’ behaviour extends to deliberately sabotaging Michael and Jane’s efforts to pay off the debt by destroying evidence in one case and refusing to accept documentation based on a minor issue in another stage.

Designed more for an American audience, it is ironic that the film’s showing has timed itself nicely with the release in Australia of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. Heads have already started to roll in Australia and audiences will find the same is true in the world of Mary Poppins Returns.

The wolves are at the door

The Banks family are in dire need of help (much like the banking industry) to save it from the wolves (and in fact, villain Wilkins even appears as an animated wolf at one stage) and remind it of its core values and principles. Heavy-handed with its commentary, at one point, Mr Dawes Jr (played by Dick Van Dyke in the film – he had played Mr Dawes Snr as well as Bert in the original) turns to his nephew Wilkins to chastise him for cheating Londoners of their hard-earned money and abusing their trust.

However, the film steers short of condemning all bankers with the kindly Mr Dawes Jr able to help save the day for our heroes. Our children (and indeed, ourselves) need not fear all banks but be wary in their character judgment and use of terms and conditions. Even lawyers are treated gently in this film with Templeton Frye (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) not a traditional legal shark but firmly on the side of the Banks family and keen to help them.

Mary Poppins Returns is both a delight and an interesting comment on the state of the economic world – both adults and children will find much to amuse and entertain in Disney’s return to the much-loved nanny. 

Mary Poppins Returns was released on 1 January 2019 in Australia, with estimated DVD release for March/April 2019.