“Mary Poppins Returns” and teaches me a few things about writing in the process

Poppins_BLOGHolidayPreviewI’ve been looking forward to the new Mary Poppins Returns movie for two years since the casting announcements of every favorite actor of mine started pouring in while my mom was first hospitalized. The original Mary Poppins was one of my very first movies, a formative influence on both Time and Tenacity and Once Upon My Mind, and one of the very few movies that’s held up to repeated watchings for me. And the new film is lovely and diverting in so many ways, including lots of fun little Easter eggs (as well as the much-promoted appearance by Dick Van Dyke, look for a brief cameo by the original Jane Banks!) and catchy songs (My toes were tapping in the theater along to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”)

As I suspected for months, however, the film is a little Mary Poppins: The Force Awakens. They go into an animated world! They all go visit Mary’s eccentric family member who’s played by a beloved character actor! There’s a disastrous trip to the bank, followed by a big dance number by the male lead and his career mates!

There’s actually nothing wrong with un-originality (as long as it doesn’t cross the line into plagiarism, of course.) We might grumble that nothing seems new anymore, but secretly I think we find it fun and comforting when stories hit familiar beats. Why else would Hallmark Channel Christmas movies be so popular? The weakness of Mary Poppins Returns, however, isn’t that it copies but that it copies in a just-for-the-sake-of-being-there way that makes many of the scenes feel artificial. (Please note some minor spoilers for both Mary Poppins films follows.)

The example that stood out the most to me is the animated scene. In the original Mary Poppins, Bert draws a chalk picture of the English countryside. The kids, Jane and Michael, ask if they can go visit and Mary takes them into the chalk drawing. A day in the English countryside, including a horse race, a fox hunt, and taking afternoon tea at a restaurant staffed by penguins, follows. Not the most dynamic stuff, but none of it pops out of nowhere. The two songs in this animated sequence come organically as well: “Jolly Holiday” is sung by Mary and Bert while they’re strolling delightfully through the countryside and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious“– which I spelled right on the first try, hooray!– is the result of one of the cartoon countryside denizens asking Mary how she feels about winning the horse race.

In contrast, the animated scene in Returns is spurred when the new kids, Anabel, John, and Georgie, break a Royal Doulton china bowl that belonged to their late mother and have to go into the bowl to fix a wheel that has come off the pictured carriage. Not a bad start, but the wheel is fixed almost immediately once they arrive. Something a dear beta reader told me on Once Upon My Mind is that nothing should ever work out that easily! The characters decide to stay and explore the world of the bowl some more and end up at a music hall, which is nothing but a stage to set another musical number on. There is no organic reason why Mary and her new sidekick-in-magical-poppinsadventuring Jack would suddenly decide to sing a 1930’s British music hall style song except that everyone wants them to. The whole sub-plot of the animated sequence could be finding the part to fix the wheel, and if the filmmakers really had their hearts set on doing a music hall number, maybe Mary and Jack could have been confused for music hall singers along the way. (Stranger things have happened!) They could have even kept the foreshadowing with the wolf– the one rather clever part of the whole cartoon sequence– by having him offer his assistance in repairing the wheel.

I say all this not to be a Grinch who ruins your holiday movie-going, but rather to say that all this musing helped me realize another missing piece in the mystery of what has held up Once Upon My Mind for so long. I love making lists to help me in my writing, and last night I made one of the essential and non-essential parts of Once. All the essential parts were emotional beats in the story (my protagonist learning to accept the unavoidable bad in life along with the good, for example), while all the non-essential parts were characters and complications she ran into on her quest for the book’s MacGuffin. I am, as a result, now in the process of reshaping Once into a story where everything that happens comes naturally from the story-line and the two worlds my characters inhabit, and don’t just happen to pad out the plot.

I was hoping 2018 would be the year of Once Upon My Mind, only for it to turn unexpectedly into the year of Stargate instead (more about that to come!), but on the top of my 2019 “to-do” list is to get Once  into your hands as soon as I can. Until then, I hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend and whatever you choose to divert yourselves with is a small reflection of the hope, joy, love, and peace of the season.


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