WARNING: Spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns

I was really looking forward to Mary Poppins Returns.

I’ve got a lot of nostalgic affection for the original 1964 film – even more so after watching Saving Mr Banks, far better than the pitch would suggest (it’s basically a massive studio making a film about how awesome another one of its films is!). You can’t argue with the pedigree of the talent involved, on both sides of the camera. And the early clips looked great.

What we got was… okay, I guess.

It probably shouldn’t go without saying, but it very often does, that the film looks fantastic. Robert Stevenson’s original is strikingly effortless in its creation of magical effects, with no computer generated imagery available (although Disney did have better blue-screen than anyone else, thanks to Petro Vlahos’s sodium vapor process which other technicians at rival studios had been unable to replicate). Rob Marshall’s follow-up keeps the same easy and unfussy integration of magical elements into a believable, but storybook world and Dion Beebe’s photography smartly keeps a ceiling on the brightness until the world explodes into colour and light towards the end. And if the new songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman aren’t quite in the league of those by the Sherman Brothers, they’re tuneful enough and they get the job done.

But from fairly early on, a lot of elements don’t seem quite right.

We are (re)introduced to the Banks children, now grown up and played by Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer. Wishaw’s Michael is living in his childhood home on Cherrytree Lane and now has three children of his own, and all four are mourning the death of their mother. Aunt Jane (Mortimer) is staying with them and in a needlessly chaotic scene we gather that the plumbing needs seeing to, the groceries need to be got, the house is being repossessed and the kids, especially Annabel are really running the show. They’re certainly more practical help than housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, taking over from Hermione Baddeley).

Lo, while flying Michael’s old kite, Mary Poppins appears and with a bit of help from lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), they descend into a cartoon world inside a china bowl, pay a call on Poppins’ cousin Topsy (a delightful Meryl Streep) and save the house from the clutches of the bank.

In outline, I suppose, this all sounds fine. But, rather like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film treats the original less like a springboard from which to find new ideas, but rather as a template to be followed closely. So just like in 1964, we get a magical tidying up, followed by a journey to a cartoon world, followed by adventures with an eccentric friend of Poppins’ up on the ceiling, then a trip to the bank which goes wrong, rescue by Bert/Jack and his gang of workers, then a resolution at the bank, followed by aerial delights with the whole family in the park while Poppins slips away.

But while the structure is followed rigidly, it seems as if writers Marshall, David Magee and John DeLuca are working from a half-remembered version of the original, in which Dick van Dyke plays a chimney sweep (he has a different job in each section of the film), in which Mary Poppins repeatedly transports the children to magical lands (this only happens once) and in which fantastic sequences end with the children waking up as if from a dream (this never happens). In fact, as the cameos from familiar faces start piling up, this begins to feel less like From Russia With Love and more like Operation Kid Brother.

But the original film is also smart and subtle enough to realise that while the source books feel very episodic, movie audiences of all ages need a bit more connecting tissue. So, every episode contributes in some way to the rehabilitation of George Banks. Motifs like “a spoonful of sugar” and “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” are all part of his journey back to his family and the least well-remembered sequence (Ed Wynn on the ceiling) is the cornerstone of this process.

Here, nothing in the underwater “Can You Imagine That” sequence is ever referred to again, and it’s questionable whether we needed either “Turning Turtle” or “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” either. And if it sounds like I’m criticising the film when it copies the original and criticising it again when it doesn’t – well, I suppose I am, but that’s the problem that sequels are often faced with, especially sequels to beloved films which are a very long time in coming. And it’s not particularly a point in the new film’s favour that a lot of the new sequences are drawn from PL Travers’ writing either. Who the hell actually read the books? (Actually I read the first four avidly as a child, but that’s not the point.)

No, here’s the real problem with this film. What’s it actually about? As I’ve said, it was the Sherman Brothers and producer Don Da Gradi’s inspiration that the golden thread uniting all of the elements of their story was that Mary Poppins had arrived not to straighten out unruly kids, but to save their father from himself. What is Mary Poppins’ mission this time round?

Well, at first it seems as if the natural order of things has been reversed. The kids are having to parent their father (Annabel at least). Is this the problem that supernanny is here to solve? Well, Georgie, the youngest, doesn’t suffer this affliction and when she’s done summoning a plumber (who never arrives) and setting off for groceries (which she never buys), Annabel just basically becomes a child again and so does her twin brother John.

Wishaw seems a bit absent-minded, but it’s not clear whether this is brought on by grief or whether it’s a character flaw. Either way, it wouldn’t work for Mary Poppins to make him more organised and rigid, and she clearly isn’t going to bring his wife back from the dead (can you imagine!?), so he isn’t the problem either. And Emily Mortimer’s Jane seems pretty self-reliant and together throughout. The film hints that she might need a man to be whole, but never quite sets off down that rather parochial path.

One interesting thread which is presented is that as they recollect their time with Mary Poppins, the adult Michael and Jane have rewritten their memories, and now believe that their magical adventures were nothing but an overactive imagination. They conclude this in the foreground, as Emily Blunt sails up the bannisters behind them, in what is possible the best shot in the entire film. But they both feel the same way, which is dramatically inert, and they don’t really alter this point of view over the course of the story. At the climax, when the whole family is soaring through the sky, buoyed aloft by Angela Lansbury’s balloons, Lansbury lumpenly spells it out for us – the adults won’t remember this the next day. No change. No growth. No transformation. No point.

In other words, Mary Poppins isn’t doing anyone any good by being there. She’s a fun source of magical adventures, but that isn’t a story. Disney realised that in 1964. Why has no-one clocked it this time round?

Absent a needed emotional transformation of a family member, what does drive the plot of the new film? An achingly tedious find-the-McGuffin routine, over-familiar from countless other films before it, allied with an even more over-familiar race-against-time device. This requires the presence of something which the first film had no need of: a bad actor; a villainous character who is actively and purposefully seeking to cause the Banks family harm for his own personal gain. It was during the otherwise lovely Royal Doulton Bowl sequence, with its wonderfully nostalgic hand-drawn animation that I began to feel as if something was badly wrong. Why are the Banks children in mortal danger? Why is a bad guy rubbing his hands with glee? Why does the sequence not end properly? What the hell is going on?

And Colin Firth is required to jump through any number of nonsensical plot hoops to make all this work. He gives Wishaw a job, even though he wants him to default on the loan. He voluntarily stays at the bank till midnight, even though he could go home at 5:00pm and guarantee that his scheme succeeds. He allows himself to be suckered in by the incredibly lame device of Miranda and co turning back the hands of Big Ben so that the deadline can be extended (a literal race-against-time, yawn) and then every single action anyone has taken in the last half hour is rendered moot by the Deus Ex Van Dyke at the end. Without Indy, the Nazis would probably still have found the Ark eventually, but at least because he was there, it ends up safe in the hands of the American government, who have the wisdom not to try and weaponise it. Without Mary Poppins’s return… I don’t know. Everything is exactly the same, I guess. Because she’s there to give the kids adventures, but the plot revolves around a bank loan. The pieces don’t mesh, and I don’t feel anything when I watch it.

The nearest I got to being moved was when the kids sing The Place Where Lost Things Go to their dad, who realises that they’ve been parenting him. Yes. Briefly. Before Mary Poppins showed up. But this epiphany doesn’t actually change Wishaw’s behaviour in any way, so – again – what’s the point of it? And it doesn’t help that this is the latest in a too-long line of supposedly insightful bon mots which attempt to recapture the simple truth of “A spoonful of sugar” but none of them quite make the grade. Different point of view.” “If it makes no sense it can’t be true.” “A cover is not the book.” And most vacantly of all “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost.” Eh?

Even the shot of Firth’s balloon sinking to the ground at the end, leaving him humiliated and earthbound just seems wrong to me. Mary Poppins is about taking crusty adults who have forgotten the elation of being childlike and giving them that joy back again. It’s not about sorting adults into winners and losers and then laughing cruelly at the losers. Ugh.

One of many reasons why the 1964 film works so well is that its makers were in no way in awe of the books. They disregarded PL Travers every chance they got, in order to put their vision of Mary Poppins on screen. As Saving Mr Banks tells us, they then had to defend and fight for every single one of those changes, which is perhaps why the final film feels so perfectly balanced.

The new film has been made by people whose reverence for the original seems overwhelming, and yet at the same time, who didn’t really understand it at all. It’s a cargo-cult version of the original, with a smashing cast, decent songs, a good sense of fun and some eye-popping visuals. But it has no engine and that’s why it can’t ever actually take off and fly.

Pre-Oscars 2019: Roma
So… what did I think of Resolution?