Rebooting a classic is never easy. Just read the critics of the new Star Wars series, and you’ll see what I mean. It is always difficult to retain the flavor of a classic while also reshaping it for a modern audience. But, after seeing Mary Poppins Returns with my family, I was surprised by how Disney was able to capture the “magic” of the original, with a new cast, new music, and new plot, some 54 years later.
Even with an incredible star-studded cast, filled with icons such as Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke, as well as Oscar-worthy performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Whishaw, it seemed nearly impossible for anyone to fill Julie Andrew’s shoes.
Yet, as Emily Blunt tells us as the “new” Mary Poppins, “Everything is possible, even the impossible.” Blunt captures the regal looks, facial expressions, voice, and mannerisms of Andrews in a remarkable fashion. But, the strength of this visual masterpiece is not the impeccable acting, whimsical music, nor the outstanding cinematography and CGI. It is the echo of the gospel, woven throughout the movie.
Call it common grace, call it the longing of all human hearts made in the image of God, call it the vestiges of our Judeo-Christian culture, or any combination of the above – Mary Poppins Returns has so many (unwitting?) allusions to Scripture, an entire book could be written on it. Despite Hollywood’s often antagonistic stance toward God’s Word and the gospel, certain truths just can’t be suppressed.
It goes without saying that Jesus is not a 20th century nanny with peculiar powers, a passion for Edwardian etiquette, and a penchant for tidying up toiletries. Yet Mary Poppins Returns begins with a scene reminiscent of a renaissance painting portraying the return of Christ, gloriously coming down to earth from beyond the clouds.
The Reality of a Return
Mary Poppins’ return is messianic (with a lower case “m”!). The Banks family is broken and battered. Through sin and death, their world, like ours, is torn and tattered. But the children know that their best hope comes from a savior who will descend to earth, fix what is broken, right wrongs, and help others to see the world as it should be seen. No, there is no resurrection of the dead or a reversal of the curse, but the return of Mary Poppins ushers in time of blessing and peace that only a savior from the heavens could bring. The opening music tells us:
Have a pot of tea, mend your broken cup
There’s a different point of view awaiting you
If you would just look up…
Listen, soon the slump will disappear, it won’t be long
Sooner than you think you’ll hear some bright new song
So, hold on tight to those you love and maybe soon from up above
you’ll be blessed so keep on looking high
while you’re underneath the lovely London sky
The first Mary Poppins movie ends with her ascension, and the second takes off when she returns to right the wrongs that have cropped up in her absence. As God is a father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5), Mary Poppins is a mother to the motherless. Her return helps Michael Bank’s children who lost their mother the previous year.
Much of Mary Poppins Returns (MPR) could fall under the category of Christ’s first or second coming, since the same Messiah brings various blessings in His first and second appearance. But, there is something about Mary’s ascension (in the original movie) and her return in MPRthat seems to mirror the biblical account in striking ways (granted, she ascends again at the end of MPR, but that is only to pave the way for another return in a possible sequel).
The Firmness of Faith
A strong theme throughout the movie is the firmness of faith. Beyond logic, there is faith. The imagination can lead us to faith, such as how entering an enchanted sea through the gateway of a bathtub helps the children believe in Mary Poppins. Faith can lead us to the miraculous and faith leads us to some places, people, and things that are more important than what we see.
The children often can’t believe what Mary Poppins proposes. But she says with a grin, “Everything is possible, even the impossible.” Did not Jesus say something similar? “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 18:27). In context, Jesus was speaking about how it is impossible for people to save themselves, but through faith in God and His gift of salvation in Christ, “all things are possible with God,” namely salvation. But in Matt. 17:20, Jesus speaks not about salvation, but about casting out demons or accomplishing great feats through faith (the size of a mustard seed) in Him (cf. John 14:12).
More importantly, did not Jesus embody Poppins’ statement? We thought it would be impossible for someone to give sight to the blind, to walk on water, and to rise from the dead – but Jesus did the impossible. Do we believe? The children and their father struggle throughout the movie to have faith (the father doubts that what happened during his childhood with Mary Poppins even happened – it may have just been something he dreamed up). Like her own existence in the movie, Jesus’ incarnation and presence as the God-man causes us to contemplate whether anything is impossible with God (Luke 1:37) and whether we have faith.
Mary Poppins Returns teaches repeatedly that there is more to life than what can be seen and there are more possibilities than can be imagined. Even the impossible is possible, when you believe. Sure, this can be watered down into a “Believe in yourself,” or “Follow your heart and dreams” Disney platitude, but the movie stays quite far from this except in one brief statement. The focus is on having faith and knowing that miracles are possible. MPRseems to be saying that the things which are unseen are just as “firm” or real as the things which are seen.
One person in the movie complains that Mary Poppins does something akin to miracles but never explains anything. Why? Because she evokes faith. Now, again, is this a full-blown biblical theology of faith in Jesus Christ and His Word, and the aspects of saving faith such as notitia, assensus, and fiducia (knowledge, assent/agreement, and trust)? No. But, just as Narnia doesn’t give a full exposition of faith or every attribute of Christ, enough is in MPR to pique curiosity, to whet the appetite, to possibly plant a seed that Christians can water.
The Assurance of the Afterlife
For instance, in a poignant scene between Mary Poppins and the children who lament the recent loss of their mother, Mary sings a touching song, echoing a Psalm to encourage the children. It seems to give an assurance of the afterlife and does so in touching, poetic ways (I encourage you to listen to the song).
Do you ever lie awake at night
Just between the dark and the morning light?
Searching for the things you used to know
Looking for the place where the lost things go?
Do you ever dream or reminisce
Wondering where to find what you truly miss?
Well maybe all those things that you love so
Are waiting in the place where the lost things go…
Nothing’s really left or lost without a trace
Nothing’s gone forever, only out of place
Spring is like that now, far beneath the snow
Hiding in the place, where the lost things go
So, when you need her touch and loving gaze
Gone but not forgotten is the perfect phrase
Smiling from a star that she makes glow
Trust she’s always there watching as you grow
Find her in the place where the lost things go
The point of the song is not to indoctrinate us into the belief that people who have died know all that is happening on earth because they turn into stars. The point seems to be that beyond the mother continuing on in the children’s looks, mannerisms, or memories (as a future discussion and reprise of the song states), nothing is truly gone forever, only out of place. If nothing is gone forever, there must be a reunion someday. “Well maybe all those things that you love so are waiting in the place where the lost things go…”
Mary Poppins begins this scene by saying to the children, “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost.” That will preach! In fact, earlier, Mr. Banks sang a song to and about his deceased wife. He asks, “Where did you go?” It’s clearly not teaching us to pray to the dead, but provoking questions about sorrow, mourning, death, and the afterlife. Because Jesus lives, we will live too (2 Cor. 4:14). If Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us (John 14), those who have died in the Lord are not lost; they are just unseen now, as He is (but He will return).
As Paul wrote,
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (1 Thess. 4:3-4).
I can hear the sermons now that will tie in the lyrics from “The Place Where Lost Things Go” when preaching on that glorious reunion which 1 Thessalonians 4 goes on to speak about. I can envision people quoting lines from this scene and song at a funeral.
Is it perfect Christian theology? No. But, does it connect with the longings of our hearts to live forever and see our loved ones again? Yes. In fact, the movie ends with the characters floating in the sky, and Angela Lansbury singing a song entitled, “Nowhere to Go but Up” (a hint about heaven?). And, the final sequence shows Mary Poppins ascending back into heaven, with various church steeples and crosses prominently displayed.
Obviously, there is no discussion on the assurance of an afterlife based on the finished work of Christ on the cross, His resurrection, the immortality of the soul, our resurrection, final judgment, and the promise of a new creation. But, there are echoes that can be tied to the gospel for those who seek to help people understand how longings in culture are connected to ultimate realities. If we want to grow in contextualization while preaching the gospel, listen to some of the songs from MPR and you’ll find ways to connect with the culture.
The Light of Life
When the movie was over, my wife turned to me and said, “There were some obvious allusions to biblical themes.” And then she proceeded to point to the lyrics to a song in the movie about light:
So when troubles are incessant
Simply be more incandescent
For your light comes with a lifetime guarantee [do I hear an echo of the assurance of salvation?]
As you trip a little light fantastic
There is a double-meaning here, as “tripping the light fantastic” refers to dancing in British slang. But the entire song and imagery is about lighting lamps throughout London, following the light, letting the light guide you, and then letting our light shine.
A leerie’s job’s to light the way
To tame the night and make it day
We mimic the moon, yes that’s our aim
For we’re the keepers of the flame
And if you’re deep inside a tunnel
When there is no end in sight
Well just carry on until the dawn
It’s darkest right before the light
I know it’s a stretch to say this alludes to the cry of the Reformation, “After darkness, light” (post tenebras lux), yet there is much in this song and scene that reminds me of Christ as the light of the world (John 1:1-9, 8:12), as salvation being compared to moving from darkness to light (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:6; 1 Pet. 2:9), and Christians letting their light shine (Matt. 5:14-16; Phil. 2:15-16), reflecting the light of the Son, as the moon reflects the light of the sun. A part of the above scene looked like a candle-lighting service on Christmas Eve while singing “Silent Night.” The song begins with these spoken words, “If I lose my way, I look for a little light to guide me.”
The Kids of the Kingdom
Themes of the imagination, faith, the afterlife, and light all seemed to have echoes of the gospel in it from my perspective. But, there was another theme that was so obviously Christian, and it was woven throughout the entire movie. It is that only through childlike faith or a childlike perspective, can we live life as it was intended (a similar theme is explored in Disney’s Christopher Robin, along with a great analogy for “sabbath” rest).
Mary Poppins warns the children not to think that they are too old to use their imagination when they doubt that they can do what Mary Poppins suggests. She says sarcastically,
I suspect and I’m never incorrect
that you’re far too old to give in to imagination
Aging versus a childlike disposition is a motif that is repeated in various places. The lesson seems to be, “Don’t forget what you were like when you were a child.” One website stated that the message of the movie is like the message of the original: “Grownups forget how to be children; don’t forget what it’s like to be a child.” There are discussions and nods to this quite often throughout the film.
Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15). And He said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Don’t forget what it’s like to be a child. A powerful scene at the end of the movie is about turning back time. In some ways this is like reversing the curse, going “back in time” to fix a problem. But it also seems to hint at going back to a time of childlike faith and innocence.
In the aforementioned song “Nowhere to Go but Up,” one line states,
Choose the secret we know before life makes us grow. There’s nowhere to go but up.
It’s during this song that Michael has an epiphany and realizes that what happened to him as a child with Mary Poppins was not merely in his mind as he previously thought, but it was “all true.” “Every impossible thing we imagined with Mary Poppins – it all happened.” Growing up causes us to forget or reject the “secret” we knew as a child – the reality of the supernatural and having an optimistic faith about the future (because God’s promises are true and He is faithful).
There are truths and aspects of trust we embrace easily as a child that can be lost as we grow older. We become skeptical, cynical, and the hurts of life make us callous to childlike faith, wonder, and love. Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14; cf. Matt. 11:25; Luke 10:21)
There are many other allusions to the gospel and biblical truths in Mary Poppins Returns, not least of which is the fact that with the coming of this savior from heaven (as with Christ in His first coming) light emerges, miracles are performed, realms are opened, broken hearts are restored, a family is healed, faith is kindled, “childlikeness” is sparked, love grows, a thief and a liar is judged, and hope awakens.
Mary Poppins Returns is a delightful movie, and one which stirs emotionally while also provoking intellectual and spiritual questions. But, I’ll close with a line from another great song in the movie, hoping it spurs people on to go and “watch” the greatest story of all:
A cover is not the book so open it up and take a look!