This place has seen better days, I said to myself as we entered the dollar theater, but then again so have I. The carpet—a jarring geometric affair only found in theaters, hotels, and bowling alleys—was threadbare and puckered in places. The glass front of the concession stand was streaked, like someone meant to give it a good cleaning, realized mid-swipe where he was, and gave up. The lighting was dim, and some part of me thought it was for the best. It’s hard to complain when tickets are two bucks and I can afford to get everyone popcorn and candy without having to take out a second mortgage.
On a Sunday afternoon when three of the features are kid-friendly, the place is usually packed with families like mine looking for a few hours of peaceful distraction. So, like the rest of the herd, we shuffle obediently into theater three—Junior Mints and Buncha Crunch in hand—to enjoy Mary Poppins Returns. Ready to forget all about sticky floors and ripped seat cushions for two hours while we watched Mickey’s glossy, four-fingered magic show.
Unlike the glut of Disney’s recent films—naked cash grabs that are nothing more than shot-for-shot remakes of classic cartoons—this film attempted to build on previous work. Once again, the Banks family is in trouble, but not of the Edwardian era, white-people-nonsense variety. Twenty-five years have passed, and this time Michael is the pater familias. His three children (Annabel, John, and Georgie) are the ones in need of Mary Poppins’ enchanting assistance after their mother’s death the previous year. Jane, his poor spinster sister, is around, as is the bedraggled housekeeper, Ellen. Even crazy Admiral Boom and his first mate, Binnacle, are still alive and shooting canons on the hour. And characters that don’t make a repeat performance—like Mary’s Uncle Albert, forever laughing himself to the ceiling—are replaced by analogs. In this case, Mary’s cousin Topsy who can fix anything except on the second Wednesday of every month when her world literally flips upside down.
Rather than the hyper-pristine London of the past, this film is set during the Depression and is, in the production designer’s words, “gritty” and “dipped in reality.” Unlike Jane and Michael who were only losing their home in the emotional sense (because their parents were too busy counting money or smashing the patriarchy to worry about them), the second generation of Banks will lose 17 Cherry Tree Lane if the bank loan isn’t repaid in full by week’s end. So much for escapism, I muttered to myself. But Mary Poppins shows up, works her magic and—spit spot—problems get solved and people become their best selves.
Just like the original, this film is imaginative to a fault. There are kites and balloons aplenty in the park. Every dark alley and close is safe thanks to an army of kind lamplighters, led by Jack (Bert’s apprentice as a child). There’s even a magical scene much like the one in Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawing, but this time it takes place on the outside of a chipped porcelain bowl. There’s singing and dancing every few minutes, and, of course, the obligatory happy ending is practically perfect in every way.
The film is also abounding with Instagram-worthy Mary Poppisms like “Everything is possible. Even the impossible,” “Head up, and feet beneath you,” “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost,” and “There’s nowhere to go but up.” The last of these is the title to the movie’s closing song, which is sung by people floating above a fair via the help of magical balloons. The song is about celebrating the enchanted possibilities of childhood, of keeping hope alive in your heart, and it closes with the following two stanzas:
If your day’s up the spout,
well there isn’t a doubt.
There’s nowhere to go but up.
And if you don’t believe
just hang on to my sleeve,
for there’s nowhere to go but up.
As you fly over town,
it gets harder to frown.
And we’ll all hit the heights
if we never look down.
Let the past take a bow.
The forever is now.
And there’s nowhere to go but up, up!
There’s nowhere to go but up!
We were leaving the theater, my youngest son still singing the tune, when I saw a woman sitting near the lobby’s left exit door. She was easy to miss, slumped in the corner of a high-backed bench topped with dusty plastic plants. She was dressed in the theater’s standard-issue polyester uniform, name tag unreadable on a too-tight black vest, her Vera Bradley knock-off purse wedged tightly between her swollen feet as she waited, I assumed, for a ride home.
Unlike the green-haired girl behind the ticket counter or the budding jock who’d fetched our candy with a “ma’am” so sweet I hardly minded being so labeled, she looked to be somewhere between fifty and sixty, a woman who should have been enjoying a Sunday off. But she’d been collecting trash from the floor and wiping up pools of what passed for melted butter alongside people more than half her age for minimum wage. Every stoop and heft of it showed.
Other belongings were pinned between her and the wall, and there was nothing of the “peaceful sleeper” business about this woman. She rested watchfully, tightfisted, unwilling let life take one more thing from her. Looking at what part of her face I could see, pinched with worry, I wanted to hug her. To tell her I’d been there and understood. That things might get better.
And there’s nowhere to go but up! my youngest continued to warble, oblivious to the contradiction in front of him.
No, I wanted to say. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go but down. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go at all. There are no Topsys in real life who can fix what’s broken. Rarely, if ever, do things work out the way they should. More often than not, we start out soaring but end up defeated with our faces in the dirt. Time sees to that. But how to say that to a child still holding on to his own green balloon? How to tell a woman who’s crash landed that getting up is possible again if I don’t know that it’s true? The weight of both questions kept my lips closed.
I kept silent rather than stop the song. And I knew better than to linger.
This show wasn’t for me.