‘Mary Poppins’ Is a Subversive Critique of Modernity

Many who saw Mary Poppins as children may remember only chimney sweeps dancing precariously on the rooftops of London, or birds flapping their wings around the cathedral, or the image of Dick Van Dyke dancing madly with those animated penguins.

But there is more to Walt Disney’s 1964 masterpiece than meets the eye.

Ostensibly a fantastical children’s story about the George Banks family and the nanny (Julie Andrews) who brings songs and magic to their London home (Number 10, Cherry Tree Lane), Mary Poppins has a powerful subtext that connects deeply with those ill-at-ease in the modern world.

The Bank vs. the Cathedral

All the Disney animated classics share a Romantic, anti-modernist worldview. Threads of dissent from the mechanistic, impersonal, and industrial nature of the modern world run through these films and give them, in spite of their differences, a sense of unity. Each offers escape into another world, one where the worst of the modern world is replaced with lush visuals and magic that ensure a happy ending.   

In most of the early animated Disney films, the tension between the harsh modern world and this other, more hospitable one is quiet. But in Mary Poppins it’s a full-blown critique.

Mary Poppins is a full-blown critique of our harsh modern world.

George Banks (David Tomlinson) is pulled between these two worlds. He is, unknowingly, in a battle. His family and soul are at stake. When the film opens, Mr. Banks is consumed both by the pursuit of profit and also by a vision of rational order that extends first to the members of his household and then, via the British Empire, to the whole world. He is a thoroughly modern man. By the end of the film, however, Banks is someone else—a man who has surrendered worldly ambitions in order to turn his attention toward family, a man open to serendipity and to wonder.

Yet none of these changes comes as a result of his choice. Rather, Mr. Banks is transformed by a series of events, beginning with the arrival of the mysterious Poppins and ending with his dismissal from the bank. The bank here is no mere employer. It is a symbol for the modern world: the world of buying and selling, the world of selfish pursuit, the world that—despite his service to it—ultimately expels Mr. Banks without regret.

Mary Poppins consistently contrasts the bank with another symbol: the cathedral. In the world of the story, the cathedral is conveniently located directly across the street from the bank. It represents the other world, with all its opposing values. It is no accident that when Mr. Banks finally takes his son Michael (Matthew Garber) to work with him, Michael wants desperately to go to the cathedral instead. Nor is it an accident that Mr. Banks, on his way to be fired from his job, first goes alone to the cathedral.

His choice at that crucial moment reveals Mr. Banks as a sort of symbol. He represents all of us who feel the emptiness of modern life and, where we are able, resist its totalizing and pernicious influence. All of us, torn between the forces of the bank and the cathedral, are, in our own ways, Mr. Banks.

Victory for the Better World

No one can imagine a Mary Poppins in which Mr. Banks stays firmly within the clutches of the bank. Such a film would be a tragedy. But the story is not a tragedy. It’s the story of how mysterious, beneficent forces work to free a man from the bondage that serves as both foundation and purpose for so many modern institutions.

When Mr. Banks is finally freed, the victory is decisive. The other, better world has won: the world of preferring family over wealth, of shoring up one’s little platoon over furthering the aims of the empire, of humane values over the impersonal forces of commerce and efficiency. As viewers we share, however fleetingly, in that triumph.

Mary Poppins is a film with a happy ending because the right side, the side for which every modern heart roots, wins.

Mary Poppins is a film with a happy ending because the right side, the side for which every modern heart roots, wins.

The right side is, of course, the anti-modern one. Surely the film owes its enduring popularity, at least in part, to this. Many people, no matter how much they claim to be at home in it, really do want to see the modern world defeated. We long for a world of restored order—not merely the order of banks, organized around careerism and consumerism, but the deeper order of right relations between ourselves and those we love. We long for the kind of order than only emerges from our simultaneous renunciation of the bank and embrace of the cathedral.

Only then can our stories more closely resemble the stories we love. Stories like Mary Poppins make us feel that a better world is near, one where our longings for deep order, right relationships, and wonder are set free to take flight like a magical nanny, like a bird, like a kite.

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