Yesterday afternoon, as the snow(!!) came down and covered the spring-greening ground, we watched Mary Poppins Returns. I’ve been wanting to see it since I heard it was coming, but was unwilling to pay movie theater prices. So, we waited, and happened to see that it was available on demand. Great!
(Warning: spoilers…though if you haven’t seen it by now I’m not sure I need to say that!)
I thought it was a fitting homage to the original, which I watched many, many times as a child. Meryl Streep was dynamite as Cousin Topsy, and the other cameos were priceless as well. (May we all be as spry as Dick Van Dyke at his age!) There were a few dark undercurrents and some upsetting moments, though — not that there weren’t in the original, but these were more blatant even to a young audience, and the kids came away with mixed impressions.
My teenager and I discussed the movie, which had greatly upset her, at length later that evening. (The Banks family got to keep their house, but what about the other 19 families that month alone? And why couldn’t Colin Firth’s balloon rise at the end of the movie, signifying a change of heart/teachable moment, especially since the more willingly nefarious henchman was able to fly by clinging to the legs of the nicer banker? I’ll admit that Firth’s balloon falling made me tear up too, even though he portrayed the ultimate villain. I think there’s always a hope in my heart that people will find some form of redemption, that “badness” isn’t forever or a character trait, in movies and in real life.)
Her biggest complaint, though, and the one that has stuck with me most, is that the good guys cheated. (They set the time on Big Ben back five minutes so that Michael Banks could make it to the bank “before the last stroke of midnight.”)
We’re supposed to see the bad guys as “cheating” all along with predatory loans and aggressive repossessions, etc. But, when Mr. Wilkins gives Mr. Banks a deadline, the villain sticks to it. He doesn’t show up a day early to claim the house or alter the amount of the full loan…although he does bar the way into the bank Friday night when he sees that Banks might make it, and he has destroyed the bank’s record of the shares the now-adult Banks children inherited from their father, so he’s no angel by any stretch of the imagination.
The bulk of what doesn’t seem “fair,” though, is his heartless sticking to technicalities and rules that allow him to sweep houses out from under mortgagees, as opposed to more classical definitions of villainy. Is he evil? No, I don’t think so. Unethical, certainly. Criminal, arguably. His defining trait is ultimately avarice though, as opposed to anything more sinister. I would argue this hardly makes him irredeemable. In the end, we’re mad at him for not sacrificing his goals (the merits of which are debatable) in the name of empathy and compassion.
And what of Michael Banks? Does his willingness to rewrite the rules make him equally unethical, despite “saving the family home” being a noble cause? Does that make it ok? Is it alright to cheat if you believe the game is rigged or that you have the moral high ground?
How might the story look from the other side? What lies behind the motivations of Mr. Wilkins?
I am definitely not a “fine people on both sides” kind of gal, but I do think it’s worth considering that when the good guys cheat, maybe good and bad are less well-defined than we are led to believe. (It doesn’t help that we automatically see “our” side as good.) Life often isn’t that black-and-white.
I’m curious about your thoughts (mine are…complicated…on this at the moment).