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All the Write Moves: Mary Poppins Returns

December 24, 2018
5 min read time

When the beloved Disney musical Mary Poppins was released in 1964, ideas of what constituted movie magic were very different than they are now. Not only was Mary Poppins made nearly 20 years before the first CGI movie scenes, but audiences didn’t live in a nonstop visual culture dominated by cynicism and short attention spans. It’s not quite right to say that 1964 was an innocent time (JFK’s assassination occurred in 1963), but it seems reasonable to suggest that audiences were open to innocent cinematic experiences.

That’s just one of the challenges faced by the team Disney put together to make Mary Poppins Returns, the release of which may well reflect the longest gap in time ever to elapse between an original film and its first sequel. All of which raises a huge question: Can a sequel designed to recapture the magic of a movie from 54 years earlier possibly thrive in today’s complex pop culture environment?

Audiences will be the ultimate deciders on this issue. For now, it’s worth examining what tools for helping Mary Poppins Returns take flight are embedded in the film’s screenplay, which was written by David Magee from a story by Magee, Rob Marshall (who also directed), and John DeLuca. Like the first picture, Mary Poppins Returns is based on the writings of P.L. Travers.

A friend in need

Though it’s hardly a long movie by the standards of contemporary blockbusters — it runs 130 minutes, compared to say, 152 minutes for Star Wars: The Last Jedi Mary Poppins Returns takes its time getting started, and for good reason. Like all musicals, the picture needs time to establish that characters will burst into song, so supporting character Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) delivers an opening tune that sets the mood and style for the picture.

Then we meet the Banks family. Sad widower Michael (Ben Whishaw) struggles to raise three spirited children with help from a housekeeper and also from his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer). In the first film, Michael and Jane were children whom Mary Poppins (originally played by Julie Andrews) arrived to help raise. Mary Poppins Returns methodically establishes the need for Mary before Mary’s actual arrival, thus making her entrance feel organic and timely.

Tempting as it is to introduce your protagonist early — either on page one or immediately after a prologue scene — there’s often an argument to be made for withholding the first appearance of your most interesting character. So long as those crucial early minutes in Act One are used for other helpful purposes, creating anticipation and suspense before the protagonist appears can greatly increase audience engagement.

As a side note, there’s an interesting discussion to be had of whether Mary really is the protagonist of the movies that bear her name. In turn, that question relates to the topic of Mary’s enigmatic nature. More on that subject later.

Takeaway: Delaying the entrance of a major character builds anticipation

Something old, something new

The writers of Mary Poppins Returns wrestled with one of the most vexing considerations in the world of sequels: How much to retain from a previous installment. Given the time between films, it would have been reasonable to jettison everything but Mary herself, especially since the new movie implies that she never ages. However, the team behind Mary Poppins Returns took the conventional route by retaining a number of major characters, hence the business of the grown-up Banks children now dealing with adult issues.

Considerations of how to meet audience expectations are not exclusive to sequels, because similar considerations impact literary adaptations and even stories extrapolated from real life. Whenever a new movie is based on existing material, whether fiction or nonfiction, the relevant question is how closely the movie should resemble what came before it. Seen in that light, the choices made while scripting Mary Poppins Returns have broad implications.

Many moments in the new film directly reflect moments from the 1964 picture, but the overall plot deepens themes from the earlier film. Whereas in 1964 Mary arrived to help raise the children of distracted parents, in 2018 she arrives to help raise the children of a widowed father. The connection is that both fathers suffer for having put away the stuff of childhood, such as imagination and wonderment. So even though Mary Poppins Returns is as gentle as the original film, it is inherently tougher because learning how to survive grief is a core theme.

The point is that when continuing or adapting familiar material, what’s important is connecting to the heart of the original material, rather than the surface. The disappointing version of Mary Poppins Returns would have been about Mary doing exactly the same thing she did in the first movie, only with a new family.

Arriving just in time to teach a new lesson? That’s reason enough to revisit a beloved character.

Takeaway: New interpretations of old stories feel valid if they add dimension

Some things are better left unsaid

By far the biggest challenge faced by the writers of Mary Poppins Returns — and, indeed, by the team behind the 1964 film — is the enigmatic nature of the central character. Mary (played in the new movie by Emily Blunt) is a supernatural being capable of flight, transmutation and other spectacular feats. Yet neither film reveals the nature of her home, her origin, or anything else of the like. In the abstract, this might seem crippling from a writing perspective; the process of developing rich characters, generally speaking, involves biographies for them, even if not all of the backstory that writers develop reaches the screen.

Like its predecessor, Mary Poppins Returns plays by different rules. Rather than a flesh-and-blood character with strengths and weaknesses and problems and worries, Mary is, literally, a force of nature. She is the fulfillment of a wish for help. Through her, storytellers can deliver lessons about generosity and imagination and kindness and loyalty and perseverance. Seen in that light, we would no more ask questions about Mary’s true nature than we would ask why fire is hot and water is wet.

This is not to suggest that Mary Poppins Returns is an endorsement for willful ignorance. Quite to the contrary, the picture comes across like a tribute to acceptance. In order to unquestionably accept that the universe contains absolute good (such as Mary), then one must unquestionably accept that the universe contains absolute bad (such as the tragic loss of Michael’s wife).

After all, what really makes Mary intriguing is that she goes away. Had either the 1964 or 2018 films depicted Mary becoming a permanent fixture in the Banks family, then the thematic implication would be that good people can expect to be rewarded with miraculous events. Instead, the thematic implication is that when good people embrace the qualities that Mary teaches — generosity, kindness, imagination, loyalty, perseverance — they can solve their own problems.

That this assertion echoes the nature of religious faith might be another reason why Mary connects so deeply, for isn’t it a comforting thought to believe that the universe will be there to give us a push when we need it most?

Takeaway: Some characters benefit from enigmatic presentation

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