This December, everyone’s favorite supernatural nanny will make her return to theaters with Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns. The sequel takes place nearly 30 years after the original adventure and, this time, Mary floats down from the sky to help a now grown-up Jane and Michael Banks with whatever mess they have gotten themselves into as adults. But while everyone knows that Mary Poppins is “practically perfect in every way,” could the return of this inscrutable domestic demi-god spell the end for humanity? If there was any logic to children’s movies the answer would be an unequivocal yes. To look closely at Mary Poppins – to reckon with the powers she displayed in the original 1964 film and grapple with her motivations – is to understand that she’s basically an Avengers villain, albeit one with a precious accent.
Mary Poppins is rightly considered a classic kid’s film and that is mostly thanks to Julie Andrews’ phenomenal portrayal of the titular nanny. Andrews is so effortlessly charming in the role that everyone she encounters almost immediately falls in love with her. And honestly, what’s not to love? She’s a panacea that literally floats down from the heavens. Mary Poppins is kind, caring, and has superpowers that include transporting children into chalk paintings and cleaning entire homes with an I Dream of Jeannie-esque nod.
And she comes recommended. Bert and the gang literally spend five minutes of the movie singing about how every day with Mary is a jolly holiday.
But, as the saying does not quite go, “If something seems too good to be true, overthink it.” And it does not take much thinking to trip on some problems with the Mary Poppins tale. The foremost of those problems is right there in the opening scene in which Poppins, an immortal, has seemingly decided that the best use of her powers is helping a random rich family in London. If Poppins is understood to be a fair god and a good god, this is a very strange use of omnipotence. Why not help the children of the chimney (chimbley?) Sweeps instead? The most probable reason can be found in “To Serve Man,” a legendary episode of The Twilight Zone.
For those who aren’t familiar, “To Serve Man” tells the story of a mysterious alien race called the Kanamits that suddenly appears on earth with technology that can fix all of mankind’s problems. Naturally, everyone embraces the Kanamits with open arms, believing that they have provided humanity with the tools to eradicate world hunger, disease, war, and every other shitty thing. About halfway through the episode, the humans find a book from the Kanamits that they believe might explain their secrets, so they begin to try and translate it. They initially decipher just the title: To Serve Man. This makes them believe that the aliens are indeed their saviors.
But like any great episode of the Twilight Zone, this one has a twist. Just as the majority of earth’s population is boarding a ship to head back to the Kanamit’s planet and live in harmony for eternity, a translator discovers that To Serve Man is a cookbook. The Kanamits only fixed the world’s problems because it was easier than blowing stuff up. They were, in essence, starting a farm.
Is it possible Mary Poppins is doing the same thing on a smaller level?
At first, the idea of the angelic Poppins only helping people to hide her real plan to enslave humanity might seem crazy, but is it any less implausible than a random nanny coming down from the sky just to help a family keep their house tidy? No. And, in fact, if you watch the movie with this in mind, it actually makes more sense.
Let’s start with Poppins’ methodology of “fixing” people’s problems. When Mary first comes into the Banks’ lives, she is not even technically hired by them. She just tricks Mr. Banks into thinking he had hired her and then distracts him by immediately begins providing solutions to their woes and worries. She then takes the kids to the park and shows off all of her magic powers, including letting them dance with cartoon penguins. She masterfully sets herself up as a magical antidote to all the pain and boredom that comes with existence.
Obviously, the family is so happy with the results that they never really stop to think about the underlying messages that Poppins is teaching the family. After all, if somebody has the answer to all your problems, you do not typically ask many questions. But if you look past the surface of Mary’s actions, you start to see that she is mostly concerned with one thing: Obedience.
While Poppins objectively makes the lives of Jane, Michael, and their parents better, she does not do it by teaching them how to be better people. Mr. Banks maybe learns to appreciate his kids a little bit more but that does not actually happen because of Poppins. It’s Bert who tells him that he needs to spend time with Michael and Jane before they grow up and it’s too late. Poppins never takes the time to do something like that. Instead, she just cunningly reiterates the idea that they are better off if they blindly bend to her will.
Feel like that’s a bit of a stretch? That’s likely because your memories of Mary Poppins revolve more around the fun songs and Dick Van Dyke’s hilarious attempt at a cockney accent than Poppins’ disciplinary tactics. But if you are truly paying attention, you may be shocked at what you find.
Throughout the movie, Poppins truly shows no interest in personal growth or nonconformity. She is deeply disdainful of Mrs. Banks, a suffragette who, in the eyes of Poppins, is foolish enough to focus on things like equality and progress. Poppins then tells Mr. Banks, “I never explain everything.” She’s both deeply conservative and deeply domineering. Just think about “Spoonful of Sugar.” It’s basically Machiavelli with a melody.
Could Poppins just be a benevolent authoritarian who wants to control others because she thinks she knows what is best for them? That’s possible, but absolute power corrupts absolutely and even a well-intentioned dictator is still a dictator. And while, yes, she could have used her powers to brazenly take over the Banks household, her method, like the Kanamits’ method, is easier. This is the path of least resistance. This is how you serve man.
Will Poppins unhinge her jaw and go full It on some brahman children in the belated sequel? Likely not. Disney is far too aware of the value of its intellectual property – witness a Pooh reboot with the exact same premise as the new Poppins – for that to happen. Still, it’s worth remembering that Mary Poppins is essentially a deeply evil character that we have been asked to accept as good on the evidence of her word and Julie Andrews’ boundless charm. It’s always worth remembering that anyone who promises an earthly paradise is up to something.