Iconography in 'Mary Poppins Returns'
Why the Disney Remakes Have Lost Their Luster
There is a scene very early on in Mary Poppins Returns that proves to be emblematic of an issue within the rest of the film: distressed about the current financial hardship facing his family, grown-up Michael Banks (played by sophisticated noodle man Ben Whishaw) ascends into the attic of his childhood home. While looking for papers, Michael stumbles upon an old pearl necklace, which is revealed through song to have belonged to his now-deceased wife. A great amount of visual weight—tight close ups, long holds, a large physical presence on the screen—is given to this necklace, imbuing it with an almost mythic quality that makes it seem as though it will play a large role in the narrative, even though the audience has never seen the necklace before and will not again after this scene. The song ends with also-adult Jane Banks (played by sophisticated Cocker Spaniel puppy Emily Mortimer) coming into the attic to help Michael look for the aforementioned papers. As the two search, they find their old kite, a painstaking recreation of the kite from the original Mary Poppins, and toss it aside without more than a quick mention.
I should state here that, although my personal history with the Mary Poppins property can charitably be described as tumultuous (the OG movie doesn’t do it for me, although the OG music by the truest OGs, Robert and Richard Sherman, does), I generally liked Mary Poppins Returns. It was pleasant, cheery, colorful, and you can tell that there is a lot of money (which is different than effort) onscreen. But leaving the theater, I couldn’t help feeling like the experience had been an hollow one. What was missing from this film? How come it didn’t connect with audiences in the same way that the original did?
What Mary Poppins Returns (god, that’s a clunky title to try to build a sentence around) tries, and ultimately fails, to do is to wring sentimentality out of audiences’ nostalgia of the original source material. This is the model for most of the Disney remakes/reboots that have been made throughout the last decade, which has led to exuberant financial, if not critical, success. The biggest way that Disney has been doing this is by latching onto the elements of the films that loom largest in the memory—most notably songs and iconography—and revisiting/reinventing them. Disney knows that seeing a visual you remember or hearing a song you know is the easiest way to convince you to spend your hard-earned money on their new product. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the marketing for their films, where trailers feature slowed-down, hyper-sentimentalized versions of songs from their respective properties (Beauty and the Beast being the worst offender here with Aladdin working overtime to knock it from that spot).
All this to say, the financial and popular success of these films are almost directly tied to how well they are able to refer back to their source iconography. For remakes, this is easy to do, since the visual elements are already baked into the plot; Kenneth Branagh doesn’t have to figure out how to fit a glass slipper into a different narrative, he just has to make sure that his glass slipper looks like the original one (take notes, Guy Ritchie). This task is much harder for a sequel like Mary Poppins Returns, which must tell a new story while still finding a way to integrate the elements that audiences remember from the original movie. Which leads me back to the scene I mentioned earlier. How come, when so much marketing and success is based on incorporating iconography from the original film, did the filmmakers choose to give this scene to the pearl necklace instead of the kite?
It’s not as though there isn’t a heavy emphasis placed on imagery and iconography in this film—it’s just that it is misplaced. Director Rob Marshall (obviously there are so many more elements at play here than just a director’s whim, but for brevity sake, please replace “director” and “Rob Marshall” with “the entire Disney creative team” and “a choreographically-challenged wet sandwich” respectively for the rest of this piece) chooses to place the most sentimental value in the film on the Banks’ house, an admittedly impressive and painstaking recreation of the original set. Michael and Jane Banks are afraid of losing their childhood home because they are afraid of losing touch with their childhood. Makes sense. On paper, at least. But the issue here is that in the original film, the house, never symbolized anything. It wasn’t like the family fixed up the house, or that they moved into a new house and learned to love it; that would connect the house to the narrative thematically, but such a connection is never made in the original Mary Poppins. So trying to retroactively make the house a central icon for the Banks’ long-lost childhood proves to be an exercise in futility.
The most aggravating part of this film is that they had a perfect symbol to use in place of the house: the kite. Jane and Michael find their original kite in the attic, complete with newspaper patches and suffragette-sash tail, and discard it immediately. Anyone who has heard of Dick Van Dyke in the past 55 years knows that kites are a central element of the story in the original film. The scene in which this particular kite is made is heartfelt one in which the original Banks parents realize they haven’t been spending enough time with their kids, so they all repair Michael’s kite and fly it together as a family. It is a touching, resonant scene that has been earned by the films narrative, distilling rich themes from the story into a single object and allowing symbolism to explain to audiences how the family has changed for the better. It's smart filmmaking that begs to be referenced for similar thematic context. And what does director Rob Marshall (remember what you should be thinking here) do with it? Literally lets it fall to the floor.
The problem with Mary Poppins Returns is that it tries to use callbacks, rather than connections, to stir emotions in its audience. Callbacks, like the Banks house and Mary Poppins’ outfit and umbrella, are neat visual references to the original, but that’s all they are. References. A connection comes not from the icon itself, but from the meaning that the original film was able to attach to that icon. When we see the silhouette of a bike flying against a full moon, we feel wonder and excitement. When we see a bowler hat and a cane, we feel joy and laughter. When we see a kite with a suffragette tail, we feel unity and compassion. But when we see the Banks’ house on 17 Cherry Tree Lane, we just see a house.