If you missed the Mary Poppins Returns movie back in December, it’s now available on DVD and via streaming on Amazon. Like the original, the new version creates a magical world of imagination, but this time childhood loss and grief drive the plot. As the movie opens, the adult Michael Banks and his three young children are coping with life after their wife/mother’s recent death and now face imminent foreclosure on the family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Though set in the 1930s, the story highlights the needs of grieving children anytime.
Acting Like Adults
In the early scenes, my heart ached a little to recognize my younger self reflected in Michael’s daughter Annabel, about eight years old. She tends her brothers as a capable adult, readying for an outing to the park. She shifts to shopping when there’s no food for breakfast, and the children even expect to spend their own money. Clearly the grieving children grasp their father’s emotional needs and the family’s shaky finances.
Then Mary Poppins lands in their literal path. She brings help on the domestic front as she gently leads them on playful excursions through London and beyond. However, rather than relieve the children’s adult-level concerns about foreclosure, Mary Poppins enables their efforts to rescue their father. Contriving a reason to visit the bank, once there she turns her back long enough long for the children to sneak upstairs and confront the president on their father’s behalf. But their efforts go awry. Later, when the house seems surely lost, Michael Banks breaks down in tears. His children, dry-eyed, comfort him with words and hugs.
While precocity appeals in young movie characters, such situations rob grieving children of normal activity for their age. A “parentified child” who is busy fixing dinner is not playing and making friends. While outwardly sturdy, they quake inside. Often, as in the Banks family and my own case, a conscientious child steps into an adult role without any forcing, driven by fear of abandonment or instability as well as love for the remaining parent and siblings.
Talking about Emotions
Many reviewers took delight in a bedtime scene in the nursery during which one of the boys says that he misses their mom. Characteristically aloof and attentive at the same time, Mary Poppins responds in song, presenting the lyrical idea that “all those things/That you love so/Are waiting in the place/Where the lost things go.” At the image of their mom “Smiling from a star/That she makes glow/Trust she’s always there/Watching as you grow,” Annabel runs to the window and then beams to see a brilliant star sparkling in the distance. I found this a bit too sappy and also misleading. However, the open expression of their grief as the basis for this scene is refreshing. Our culture needs a whole lot more of that candor for grieving children and adults alike.
A Long Arc
The nature of childhood loss is to echo throughout life. At each new stage or milestone, like graduation, marriage, or becoming a parent, the death is re-interpreted. In some sense, the child grieves again from the more mature age. As time goes on, it helps if memories are kept alive. Here, the movie excels by highlighting items from the children’s mother. In an animated scene (with wonderful special effects), the youngest boy charges into danger to reclaim the beloved stuffed giraffe that his mom had made. Later, in the nursery, the children treasure a porcelain bowl of their mother’s which is displayed on the mantel. When it becomes chipped, Mary Poppins’ handles the repair decisively. She understands the object’s emotional value, now and in the future. As she had sung earlier, “Gone but not forgotten is the perfect phrase.”
Other viewpoints on Mary Poppins Returns and grief:
The Dark Magic of Mary Poppins Returns – The Atlantic