Mary Poppins but not as you remember her ...
Mary Poppins is making a screen comeback, but the sequel may be less sweet, writes Charlotte Runcie
The live-action 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins had its fair share of strange and marvellous goings-on as part of the plot. Children jumped through chalk drawings into other universes and people laughed until they levitated. It was even a world where the stiff upper lip of an English father could be melted by a kite-flying excursion.
But even more weird and wonderful events happen in the original series of fantastical and hugely imaginative Mary Poppins books, written by PL Travers. Some things were toned down for the screen: Mary Poppins herself, for instance, was a kinder character than in the books.
More than 50 years since the first Disney film, there is now a sequel in the works starring Emily Blunt. Although it’s likely to be another story filled with magic, music and fun, reports suggest it will be expanded well beyond the books.
The sequel is said to be set 20 years after the previous movie, with Jane and Michael grown up. The adult Jane and Michael Banks, along with Michael’s three children, suffer a tragedy in the family and need Mary Poppins to return to bring them joy, a plot line not found in the books.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, is playing the role of Jack, apparently based on several supporting characters in the books and similar to the role made famous in the original film by Dick Van Dyke as Bert. It remains to be seen how many of the stranger episodes from the novels make it to the screen sequel.
But whatever Disney decides, there’s potential for a great Mary Poppins horror fantasy movie to be made for grown-ups, with plenty of bizarre — and sometimes terrifying — source material in the books. Here are eight elements that stand out as particularly hard to adapt:
1. A WORLD TOUR OF RACIST STEREOTYPES: Probably the most infamous chapter of the original book has Mary Poppins taking the children in her care around the world, introducing them to a different racially stereotyped character in each location. Maybe it was the sort of thing that passed without comment when Travers was writing in the 1930s, but as time went by this particular episode caused increasing consternation among Poppins fans. Travers eventually went back and edited it in 1981, changing the characters to animals.
2. CHILD ABDUCTION: In a terrifying sequence in the second book, young Jane Banks gets kidnapped by a spooky grandfather of two oldfashioned 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.
3. A CIRCUS IN SPACE: 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. But 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.
4. MARY POPPINS FLIES OFF INTO THE ETHER ON A POSSESSED MERRY-GO-ROUND: 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 promptly begins spinning faster and faster, the music louder and louder, until it takes off and bears Mary away and into the sky. An enchanted carousel did make it into the original film, but not in this context — and Disney chose to omit Jane and Michael’s devastated reactions to their beloved nanny blasting off into space and leaving them alone.
5. ALIEN CATS: 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.
6. A HERBAL ENCYCLOPEDIA: Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane is a story that uses various botanical herbs throughout, and includes an encyclopedia of their uses and Latin names. Which is interesting in itself but may not translate well to the big screen.
7. THE CRACK: At New Year, things get philosophical, as a crack forms between the old year and the new: “Inside the Crack all things are at one. 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,” Sleeping Beauty says by way of explanation.
8. FISH THAT CATCH HUMANS: Jane and Michael fall through a conch shell into an undersea kingdom filled with talking fish in Mary Poppins Opens the Door. 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 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.
Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in the 1964 Disney original