Not so magical: the anticipated sequel to a childhood classic threatens the very philosophy that made the original so special
This winter, Mary Poppins Returns to cinemas and attempts to recapture the magic of the original film which so many generations of children grew up with. As with every remake, get ready for endless debates as to whether the film actually succeeds in recapturing the warmth of your childhood. Still, let me be daring and argue that it actually fails to do that for one maybe less conspicuous reason!
This reboot of the Mary Poppins universe is set some years after the events of the original film. The two Banks children have become adults and very much banished the magical experiences of their childhood to the realm of their imagination. Their situation is marked by tragedy. Michael Banks is emotionally stricken by the death of his wife, who left him behind with his three children and their aunt Jane Banks. As if that is not enough, the family is about to lose their house on the well-known Cherry Tree Lane because they cannot pay back their debts to a bank. It is in this situation that Mary Poppins pops up in the sky and, once again, lights up the Banks’ lives with imagination and joy. And, in the end, even their bad luck with finances takes a turn to the better and they get a big happy-ending.
So can this jolly story recapture the magic of the original? Certainly not! And this simply because in its final moments, it takes a rather unexpected turn, which undermines its entire message in an extraordinary way. At the end, you see, the line of conflict about the Banks family’s debts is resolved by the appearance of the aging bank director, who surprisingly declares that Michael is a rich man. Why? Because, when he was a child, his father had invested two pence into the bank, which, since then, have been used for multiple investments and grew to be a sort of a small fortune. As it is then called into the audience’s memory, these two pence are nothing less but the “tuppence” from the original Mary Poppins. As a child Michael had intended to give them to an old lady to buy bird food for feeding pigeons. This symbolic gesture, as made clear in a truly beautiful song, was intended to highlight the film’s general plead for humanity and charity. However, in this sequel it appears that handing the money to bankers, which in the original were portrayed as malicious and greedy, to invest was, in fact, the correct choice. This is such a radical break with the philosophy of the original hat even other pleads for charity throughout the film appear inconsistent.
It is questionable how this rapid growth of money came to be. Here, some might recall that the Banks family were not the only people in danger of losing their houses to the bank. Indeed, it is described that as many as 19 houses were claimed by the bank every week. This inevitably raises the question at what costs the Banks’ newfound luck came to be. Was it maybe even financed by the doom of those less fortunate, who, in the end did not get to keep their houses? If this is the case the personal happy end for the Banks family should certainly not be celebrated as the happy end of a film, that has spent time establishing the financial problems affecting many and their cause.
And these problems can not be simply hidden away by the weak attempts to criticize the profit orientation and inhumanity of the depicted economic system, which is made glaringly obvious by its setting in the times of the 1920’s Great Depression. The very fact that the bank’s owner is able to exploit the misfortune of others to his own enrichment completely within the boundaries of the law and normally “acceptable” behaviour might at first appear as criticism of the economic system that allows him to do so. However, this earlier message of the film is once again made inconsistent by its fatal climax, where the banker is reduced to the role of the generic bad guy. His skilful depiction as a menacing wolf wanting to steal the Banks’ belongings in an earlier cartoon sequence leaves no doubt about that. By (quite literally) drawing this image, his part’s significance is reduced to the one of a rotten apple in an otherwise unspoilt barrel.
In this fashion, this film does not set out to continue the original’s plead for charity and critique of a money oriented economic system. Instead, while admittedly depicting some of its flaws, it rather chooses to showcase the alleged advantages of a liberal capitalist system: a skillful investor can always make profit, even in times of economic crises and overarching social injustice. In a way here, the Banks’ “clever” investment is even comparable to the ones of the bank’s inhuman investments and the film’s villain’s strategy. Not so magical after all.