Warning: This Mary Poppins Returns article contains spoilers for delightful cameos made in the film, as well as the ending.
Mary Poppins Returns is a joyous celebration of many things: family, community, London, lamplighters, eccentric costuming, animation, movie musicals, and, of course, the original 1964 Mary Poppins. While in most ways the sequel lives up to the original, there is one notable way in which it surpasses it: in its representation and depiction of old people.
In watching Mary Poppins Returns, it struck me just how many older adult characters appeared in the film… And not just the kinds of characters Hollywood usually tries to pass off as situated near the end of aging, like 68-year-old Julie Walters, who plays housekeeper Ellen (in a very similar role to the one she plays in Paddington), or 69-year-old Meryl Streep, who plays Mary’s fix-it cousin Topsy Tartley, but proper old people.
In the span of Mary Poppins Returns‘ runtime, we see Dick Van Dyke, 93, playing Mr. Dawes Jr. (In addition to playing chimney sweep Bert in the original, Van Dyke played the role of banker Mr. Dawes Sr.) We likewise see Angela Lansbury, also 93, playing the Balloon Lady in the film’s denouement.
Past that, in more traditional “old people” roles, we see 77-year-old David Warner as Admiral Warner, the Banks family’s neighbor, and 80-year-old Jim Norton as Binnacle, Warner’s friend and caretaker. While the senile, time-obsessed Admiral Warner falls into some lazy, harmful stereotypes of older adults (perhaps no surprise, given that these characters are holdovers from the original film), he is also a compassionate, loved part of the community.
I’m not saying the older characters in Mary Poppins Returns get to be the center of the action for most of the movie, but they get to be the center of action for some of the movie, and that’s pretty darn rare in an industry that usually denies that old age, you know, exists. Most importantly, Van Dyke and Lansbury get to sing and, in Van Dyke’s case, dance. For a movie musical, this is what matters. It’s the difference between being set-dressing for this world–or worse, the butt of a joke, as so many old characters are in other mainstream films–and being a part of the magic.
It’s no secret that older people don’t get featured a lot in mainstream entertainment. There is a somewhat incorrect perception, depending on which specific age demographic you’re talking about, that older people don’t control the purse strings of a family, and therefore they don’t get movies made for or about them. This is changing somewhat in an era of #PeakContent and fractured audiences (see Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, as a great example), but we still have a long way to go in combatting Hollywood’s rigid ageism.
Not only is this old age invisibility or problematic essentialization incredibly disheartening, I would imagine that to older viewers, who don’t get to see themselves in mainstream film (in particular as anything other than some combination of a doting or senile grandparent or neighbor), it’s a pretty scary message to impart to younger and especially middle-aged viewers who might resemble their children.
Aging is a complicated, complex thing, something as a younger person I am far from understanding, but that’s exactly one of the reasons we need to demystify it. Youth is something to be treasured, yes, but it is not the only stage of life to celebrate and we do so disproportionately in our culture, and there are few things more anxiety-inducing than living in a culture that tells you your life is over at a certain age. (Depending on your gender and other identities, this exact age varies.)
Our older citizens are invisible because they have been pushed aside. Perceived to be or actually no longer able to work, they hold little value in a culture that prioritizes work and ability to consume above all other traits. These are the qualities that do or do not give us “worth” in a capitalist society. Therefore, for the most part, there is no place for older people in our society and culture.
The reality represented in Mary Poppins Returns is wonderfully different, however. Here, they are part of the community. They get to sing. They get to fly. And, in one of the most wondrous scenes of the entire film, they get to dance. Van Dyke, who has been old for a bit now and knows much better than I the kind of prejudice older people face on a daily basis, recently said he originally was skeptical to join the sequel—no doubt worried that he would be a prop to be wheeled in and pointed to, rather than an active part of the story.
“The minute I heard I was going to do a little number, that sold me,” Van Dyke told People. “And I thought I could contribute by just being a little bit of a reminder of the original. And I think it turned out well. I got to jump up on a desk and do a dance number. It surprised everybody, but nobody was as surprised as I was. We did several takes of it, and I was just amazed. And I enjoyed it, of course.”
Reader, it did turn out well. It is, arguably, the best part of the entire film (for me, it’s tied with a moment when Michael’s children sing to him), and one that reportedly made people emotional on set. It is also proof that it isn’t just our duty to give older people a voice in our mainstream cultural narrative; it would often be our pleasure.
Past his tapping and singing, Van Dyke’s bank manager character straight-up saves the day for the Banks family. Prior to his entrance in the film’s third act, Dawes Jr. is described by Colin Firth’s William “Weatherall” Wilkins, the current president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, as too old and senile to run the bank or even remember if George Banks bought shares. In other words, Weatherall is playing off of both the audience and the in-world characters’ expectations of and prejudices surrounding what it means to grow old.
For once, however, the joke is not on the older character, but on us. Van Dyke’s bank manager is sharp, kind, and ultimately a deus ex machina who saves our protagonists. Compare this to in the original where he plays the same character’s father as a senile antagonist who hates children and ultimately laughs himself to death, and you’ll see just how different this film’s portrayal of older characters truly is.
Advanced age representation feels especially important for a story in which the eponymous character stays young and beautiful forever and laments about how adults “always forget,” and the movie nails it. Because Mary Poppins isn’t just there to teach the youngest Banks children how to enjoy life; she’s there for Michael and Jane too, if not more so.
Mary Poppins is there to remind them that “there’s always another ship,” whatever that ship may represent. For Jane, that ship may be a romance with lamplighter Jack or a successful, new direction in her union organizing. For Michael, it is enjoying life after the death of his wife. For Mr. Dawes, Jr., it is another tap dance.
When it comes to old age representation in Hollywood, it’s not nearly enough. But it is a joyous start.