Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane in London is an address that will sound familiar to many who grew up in the 20th century and who might have been great readers in their childhood and who may remember — either or both — the Mary Poppins books and film.
Number 17 was of course where the Banks family lived and where Mary Poppins turned up to look after the children in her magical but no-nonsense manner. The nanny with a very good opinion of herself (“practically perfect in every way”) was created by the author P.L. Travers, and immortalised on the screen by the charming Julie Andrews in the 1964 film musical. This was a film that many people (who were children in the decades since then) grew up on repeat screenings of, and whose songs many viewers loved and knew by heart — ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, ‘Chim Chimmeny’, ‘Supercalifragilistis’, ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’, etc. And this year Mary Poppins returned — or sort of.
A new film Mary Poppins Returns sees the charming Emily Blunt take over the Mary Poppins role, and come back to Cherry Tree Lane many years after her initial stint. The original Banks children, Jane and Michael are grown ups, with Michael now struggling to look after his own three children. In flies Mary Poppins with her parrot-handled umbrella and carpet bag, bringing back some of the old magic (forgotten by Jane and Michael now that they’ve become grown ups) — to provide stability to the children and help bring the family together.
The thing about this sequel is that it’s really just a delightful trip down memory lane for people my age. It does what the two recent Paddington Bear films did, except that while those did appeal to young audiences this one is less likely to. One of the main reasons for this is that the film is far too long (130 minutes) and also it delivers nothing in terms of songs to remember. The singing it does have is more like sung dialogue than actual song and all the numbers and lyrics are thoroughly forgettable. This is a pity as the music always starts out with great promise and resonates with sounds from the original but then doesn’t manage to build on this resonance.
The other reason is some of the casting. Although the actor playing the youngest child impresses, the other two fail. And the actor playing the Bert replacement — Jack the lamplighter — doesn’t really have much screen presence at all, he is extraordinarily bland. Of course if you want screen presence, well that is more than adequately provided by Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury and, astonishingly, by Dick Van Dyke who played Bert in the original movie. Dick Van Dyke at 93 cuts a sprightly figure in his lovely energetic cameo — but overall the blandness of some of the other casting affects the movie badly.
Blunt however does make a great Mary Poppins and Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw are both solid as Jane and Michael.
Despite all this, the movie did very well at the box office after its Christmas holiday release but what is not clear is whether it is because it was popular with children — or mostly with their parents and grandparents. I went to see it with a friend my age, no kids in sight.
The interesting thing about the film is the nostalgia trend it reflects, it follows on the heels of the Paddington and Marvel comics films, so it really seems as if the Baby Boomer generation is yearning for some of the moral and social certainties provided by the fiction they turned to in their youth.
As the world seems to collapse into disunity and hostility and Trump inspired nationalist/fascist rhetoric and xenophobia, it seems we all feel the need for some feel-good, happy escapism where good really does triumph over evil. Ah, the fiction…