Mary Poppins: Looking Back At Simpler Times

by Charissa Fenton

As Mary Poppins Returns came out in theaters a few months ago, I went in it to remind myself to “just enjoy it for what it is, don’t expect it to match the original.” So many remakes have been coming out of late to remind my generation of their childhood films, but no film has been more formative for me personally than Mary Poppins. At two years old it was the first movie my little self latched on to. My mother could plop me in front of the movie, and for two hours get some yard work or other chores done without a worry because in that time I would not have moved an inch. I attribute to Mary Poppins my intense love for whimsy, musicals, and the early nineteen-hundreds. Lately, at what seems to be a prodigious rate, Hollywood has been calling to my generation. “Catch a ride on the Nostalgia Train, so we can Cash your ride on the Nostalgia Train.” People complain about it while simultaneously flocking to see each new remake, reboot, sequel, prequel, and reiteration of their childhood favorites. “Remember when life was simpler? Remember that joy you had? Remember these characters you loved spending time with?” And we pretend that this siren call to live in the past is stronger in our time than it was before. But is it?

In many ways, the “90’s kids remember when” meme has been going on for generations, and the generation that mirrors it the closest is the same generation that gave us Mary Poppins in the first place. Before going forward, let’s take a moment to talk about the thirty year nostalgia cycles. With the recent 1980s craze, there has been more talk than usual about why these thirty year cycles occur. One article explains: “There are a number of reasons why the nostalgia pendulum 1 shows up, but the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood.” These are those same children who once sat transfixed before the screen, now ready to reshape and re-explore the worlds they were given. They’re making sense of their past, finding those things they remember as good, and handing them down to the next generation. Now why am I bringing up the thirty-year cycle when it’s been more than thirty years since Mary Poppins first came out? It doesn’t fit with the rest of the cars on our Nostalgia Train. In fact, it’s been fifty-four years since the original film was released. Interestingly, it was also fifty-four years between the making of Mary Poppins and the time period in which it is set. “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910!” Mr. Banks sings at the beginning of the film, setting us solidly at the turn of the 20th century. Made in the year 1964, Mary Poppins pulls not from the childhoods of an up and coming newly matured generation of parents. It comes from the slightly older generations of grandparents, and one grandparent in particular: Walter Elias Disney. 

1910 marked one of the last years Walt spent in the small town of Marceline, Missouri, at the beloved home of his youth. Throughout his career, Walt would pull inspiration from that particular period of his childhood. “Marceline would always be a touchstone of the things and values [Walt] held dear;” Neal Gabler writes in his biography of Disney; “everything from his 3 fascination with trains and animals to his love of drawing to his insistence on community harkened back to the years he spent there.” As much as Disney was an innovator looking towards the future, his affection for the past came up time and time again. “In live-action films like So Dear to My Heart, Old Yeller, and Pollyanna, he refined and exploited a load of nostalgia that became identifiable enough to be called ‘Disneyesque’[.]” While many called these films saccharine and sentimental, the nostalgia for the turn of the last century was no less of a goldmine than the nostalgia for the turn of the millennia. People wanted to remember these times more so than other times. Both the turn of the century and the turn of the millennia were heralded in with periods of great innovation, and peace.

Personal computers and the internet brought us into the digital age, yet 90’s kids can still remember what the world was like before these technologies had proliferated in our culture. In the same way, the children of the aughts (1900s) watched the transition from horses and carriages to motor cars. They witnessed the development of airplanes, radios, and motion pictures. Douglas Adams put it well with his three points when he said, “First, Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Second, Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Third, Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” Yet because of the speed at which these technologies changed the way we interact with the world both generations harbored a sort of resentment for the things that were lost even as they delighted in the possibilities of the new. Technological innovation wasn’t the only dramatic change these generations faced. Both experienced childhoods in periods of peace followed by game changing wars. 9/11 marked a sudden wakeup call from the carefree attitude of an America that hadn’t experienced an attack on home soil since Pearl Harbor. It marked a drastic change in the world, plunging those nineties-kids-who-remember-when into a national atmosphere of fear, severing them from simpler times.

In 1917, the First World War was what reshaped the world. There was no going back from it. All of these changes made it harder for both generations to let go, and I would argue that both generations experienced a more acute form of nostalgia. The more intense the feeling of nostalgia, the harder it is to be good custodians of that nostalgia. It’s so easy to reiterate, “Remember when? Remember when? Remember when?” pointing to that rosecolored past. However, part of the job of the artist is to sift through those memories and find the things of most value to pass on. For Walt Disney, Mary Poppins was more than just another jewel to add to the Disney corporation’s crown. What started as the fulfillment of a promise to his daughters became a passion project for Walt. Gabler writes, “Though he didn’t – couldn’t, given his other responsibilities at the time – work on the script line by line, he obviously connected with the film in ways that he had not connected with most of the studio’s recent pictures.” I like to think that Mary Poppins is a sort of letter from Walt to his father, a hard man who didn’t take much time to enjoy life. In some ways it is an exploration of what Walt’s childhood could have looked like. I also like to think of Mary Poppins as a letter from Walt to his younger self as a father, especially now that he was a grandfather. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is the conversation between Mr. Banks and Burt. In it Burt sings, “You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone. Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve. And all too soon they’ve up and grown, and then they’ve flown. And it’s too late for you to give, just that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.” In the world of Mary Poppins, people grow best when given a balance of rain and sunshine, medicine with sugar, discipline and play.

What of the next generation? What does Mary Poppins Returns have to say about the people and times in which it was made? The tricky thing about reboots is we want everything to be the same, but different. We want it to be exactly the way it was in our childhood, but also to be completely new and relevant to where we are in our lives now. I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century contemplating the ideas conveyed in Mary Poppins. I’ve only had a few months to think about its sequel, which not only makes me more than a little biased, it makes me less qualified to talk about that movie’s themes and ideas. But the thing I love about reiterations of time tested classics is how they open up new angles and perspectives from which to view those classics. The magic of Mary Poppins is rightfully equated with the magic of childhood, but I would like to suggest another way of looking at it: Magic = New Technology. Now obviously this isn’t a one for one, but in both Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns there are a few key sequences that utilize Mary’s magic to achieve the same goals as technologies foreign to the children of 1910 and 1930, respectively, but very familiar to the people of the audience watching these film. Technology makes the impossible possible, it speeds up work, and it opens up access to new worlds. Magic or technology, they both bring with them a sense of wonder and excitement. Yet Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns end on contrasting notes that I think are extremely relevant to the way culture has shifted over fifty, or even a hundred years.

Mary Poppins concludes with the idea that the greatest magic the children could ever experience is an outing with their parents. They joyfully fly a kite, a thing that is in itself neither magical nor technological. So the audience of 1964 onward take away from that film a drive to put away their fancy gadgets for an afternoon and spend time together enjoying timeless pleasures. In the course of a two hour film, Mary has taught us to see the world differently, but once the screen is dark we, like the Banks family, don’t need Mary’s magic anymore. In contrast, Mary Poppins Returns ends with all the characters using magic. Adults and children alike fly through the air with helium balloons. This is an experience the audience cannot go home and replicate. Virtual reality, the unreal worlds of smartphones and televisions, surrounds us constantly. The end of our new fairy tale is a world not grounded in the very real magic of the joys found in everyday life, but in the highs of crafted experiences. These crafted experiences can be shared. My family considers watching movies together a definite form of quality time, but by ending the film this way we are not given the same tools to go out and create our own magic that the previous film gave us. While each generation has its own unique experience of the cycles of time, looking back we can always find those kindred spirits in history with a similar point of view. The stories we choose to retell reflect our values as a society. If we must “remember when”, then let us also take the time to remember why these things had value to us. Maybe that in and of itself is enough to be worth the price of a ticket on the Nostalgia Train. 

Abducted by aliens as a child, Charissa Fenton has spent her life wearing socks and questioning the intricacies of human existence. She graduated from Houston Baptist University in 2016 with a BFA in Cinematic Arts

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