Why ‘Mary Poppins’ is more like a horror fantasy than fun
Several aspects of the books are, in various ways, much too disturbing and un-Disney to be realised on screen
Mary Poppins Returns, the new live-action Disney sequel, is set 20 years after the first adaptation of PL Travers’s stories. The children Jane and Michael Banks have now, apparently, grown up into Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw.
It’s a whole new story with new songs to match and, as with the original film, Disney haven’t decided to stick too closely to Travers’s original books. They’re keeping to the spirit and not the letter of the stories. That's probably wise.
A really faithful adaptation of Travers’s vision might make a good fantasy horror for grown-ups, but there are several aspects of the books that work well in written form but are, in various ways, much too disturbing to be realised on screen. First there’s the racism. Probably the most infamous chapter of the original books has Mary Poppins taking the children around the world, introducing them to different racially stereotyped people, including Africans and Native Americans, in each location. It was the sort of thing that passed mostly without comment when Travers was writing in the 1930s, but readers soon started pointing out how uncomfortable the writing was.
Travers initially just removed some of the offensive language, but when the chorus of disgust grew louder Travers eventually went back and completely rewrote it in 1981, changing the racist caricatures into animals.
Some parts of the books, however, are just plain scary. There is a zoo in one story where the humans are the ones in cages. In Mary Poppins in the Park, a visit is paid to a planet filled with officious, riddling alien cats. The alien cats keep an army of slave children, and Michael Banks is betrothed to marry a feline princess before a group of furious cats attempt to smother him with their bodies.
And in a terrifying sequence in Mary Poppins Comes Back, Jane Banks is kidnapped by a spooky grandfather of two old-fashioned boys who live inside a cracked china bowl, and who want to keep her trapped inside the bowl forever. Mary Poppins rescues her, and turns it into a lesson about how you shouldn’t think too much – not necessarily an ideal moral for today’s children to follow.
Also in Mary Poppins Comes Back, Jane and Michael visit a circus in the night sky, where the constellations are the circus acts and a dragon made out of stars begs them for a currant bun. The circus is overseen by a malevolent all-powerful sun, whom all the other stars worship, and who cracks a whip to express displeasure at their performances. The dragon and a clown flee the scene, weeping. The sun dances with Mary Poppins and they share a moment of unresolved romantic tension.
Events frequently take a strange philosophical turn. In Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, a crack forms between the old year and the new: “Inside the Crack all things are at one,” says Sleeping Beauty, by way of explanation. “The eternal opposites meet and kiss. The wolf and the lamb lie down together, the dove and the serpent share one nest. The stars bend down and touch the earth and the young and old forgive each other.”
In Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Jane and Michael fall through a conch shell into an undersea kingdom filled with talking fish. Everything starts off innocently enough, and they get invited to a fishy garden party. But the first sign that all is not well comes with the strict enforcement of a “no whales” door policy. Soon it transpires that the the fish themselves enjoy a bit of fishing – and they like to catch humans, luring them with bait of strawberry tarts and keeping them trapped underwater. The fish enjoy watching them wriggle.
And then there’s outright neglect. Not content with her usual method of transport – a flying umbrella – at one point in the books, Mary Poppins suddenly deserts her young charges in the park by hopping aboard a carousel, which begins spinning faster and faster, the music becoming louder and louder, until it takes off and bears Mary Poppins away and into the sky.
An enchanted carousel did make it into the original film, but in much happier circumstances, and Disney chose to omit Jane and Michael’s devastated reactions to their beloved nanny blasting off into space and leaving them alone.
Even without all of these surreal stories, the 1964 Disney film wasn’t short of strange and marvellous goings-on. Children jumped through chalk drawings into alternate universes, people laughed until they levitated, and an Englishman’s stiff upper lip was softened by flying a kite.
But Poppins herself was a kinder character on screen, and the lives of the other characters were almost completely reinvented. Travers, for her part, famously hated it. She died in 1997, but we can probably assume she’d have a few comments to make about the new film, too, if she were here.
However, it’s to Disney’s credit that they’ve managed to harness the incredibly imaginative atmosphere of Travers’s books, remove the dodgy bits, and turn them into films that are charming, entertaining — and probably won’t scar children for life. - © The Daily Telegraph
• Mary Poppins Returns is in cinemas now.