Think Emily Blunt’s new movie is just a whimsical story about a flying nanny? Think again: it’s much more revolutionary than that.
I’ve watched plenty of Disney films over the years – and, by now, I know how the story goes. Prince meets princess, rescues her from a wicked villain, enjoys true love’s first kiss, and rushes her down the aisle for a fairytale wedding and that so-called ‘happy ever after’.
Another fun trope of this not-so-feminist narrative? The ages of these swooning princesses. In the original animated films, Snow White is 14, Jasmine from Aladdin is 15, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora is 16, Beauty and the Beast’s Belle is 17, and Cinderella is the oldest at 19.
No wonder Disney has been criticised for women’s characters over the years, eh?
However, as seen in recent hits such as Moana, Brave, Frozen, Emma Watson’s recent remake of Beauty and the Beast, and Tangled: Before Ever After, in which Rapunzel actually turns down a marriage proposal because she isn’t ready yet (no wonder: at 18, the girl’s a wee snippet of a thing), Disney is now working hard to redress gender stereotypes and imbue their heroines with a newfound sense of power and control over their own destinies.
It makes sense, then, that they decided to work a new take on the ‘happy ever after’ narrative into their newest smash-hit movie.
Fair warning: this article contains spoilers for Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins Returns.
The plot to the movie is practically perfect in its simplicity. Now an adult with three children, bank teller Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) learns that his house will be repossessed in five days unless he can pay back a loan. His only hope is to find a missing certificate that shows proof of valuable shares that his father left him years earlier. Just as all seems lost, Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) receive the surprise of a lifetime when Blunt’s Mary Poppins – the beloved nanny from their childhood – arrives to save the day and take the Banks family on a magical, fun-filled adventure.
The film is not all that dissimilar to the Julie Andrews classic, right down to Mary’s handsome Cockney sidekick. Unlike the original movie’s Bert (Dick Van Dyke), though, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is not hopelessly besotted with our titular heroine. In fact, they share a purely platonic friendship – one which is based on feelings of mutual respect.
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And, as quickly becomes apparent to the audience, that dynamic isn’t going to change any time soon. Why? Because the lamplighter is too busy working his rounds and swooning after someone else: the fiercely independent Jane Banks.
Oh yes. While Michael has followed in his banker father’s footsteps at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (run by Colin Firth’s William Weatherall Wilkins), Jane has decidedly taken up the cause of her mother and is now a union organiser for a group called SPRUCE — the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Underpaid Citizens of England. Mrs Banks would be so proud!
Of course, there are plenty of other ways that Jane is not your typical Disney love interest. For starters, she owns her own property (indeed, she invites her brother and his sprawling family to stay in her presumably palatial London apartment when they receive their Notice of Repossession), and is far too busy charging around town with campaign banners to sing a ditty with a bluebird. She wears flat shoes and trousers (far more practical, particularly for unexpected bicycle rides), is endlessly capable, and more than willing to speak up for the rights of others.
It is also worth noting that Jane is played by the 47-year-old Emily Mortimer: a not insignificant detail, when you consider the tween princesses previously listed above. This means that, for the first time in a Disney film, women do not become invisible spinsters after the age of 20. Instead, they remain bold, bright and brilliant. Above all else, they are capable of success with or without a man at their side, and are still deserving of true love, no matter what their age.
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As if all that weren’t startling enough, though, there’s also the tiny matter of her love interest. Jack isn’t just a salt-of-the-earth member of the working class (tarulalee, tarurala), he’s also played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a “proud Mexican-American”. Which is, to be honest, a Pretty Big Deal.
Consider, if you will, the limited representation of interracial relationships in Disney films up until this point. In Pocahontas, John Smith is white and Pocahontas is Native American. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, French Roma “gypsy” Esmerelda falls in love with Phoebus – who, like John Smith, is a white, blonde military man.
In 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, meanwhile, Disney’s first ever African-American princess Tiana winds up with the ethnically ambiguous Prince Naveen – and in the live-action Beauty and the Beast, the film’s director Bill Condon made headlines when he revealed that the film would feature not one but two kisses between Cadenza and Madame de Garderobe, played by Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald.
“I didn’t give it a second thought, then at the preview, the [Disney] chairman told me that it was the first and second interracial kiss in a Disney movie,” Condon told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row at the time.
All of this aside, the relationship that plays out between Jack and Jane is revolutionary in its simplicity: they share a handful of stolen glances, enjoy a bicycle ride through the city streets, and even attend a rally for equal rights together. And, come the end, they don’t fall into each other’s arms and declare their undying love for one another. Instead, they clasp hands as they gently float off into the sky clutching the string of a magical balloon, and remind the world that “side by side is the best way to fly”… before gently floating back down to earth and heading their separate ways.
The implication of an ongoing relationship is made abundantly clear (Jack promises to fight to make things work when a nosy onlooker barks a “don’t you lose her, sonny!” in his direction), but we aren’t bogged down with too-soon marriage proposals. Instead, the two leads in the film’s subtle romantic subplot head off to fulfil their duties. Jack attends his rounds, while Jane escorts Michael and the children back home to 17 Cherry Tree Lane before – presumably – returning to her own flat to plan her next rally.
It’s a firm reminder that real relationships take a lot more work than a magical meet-cute and true love’s kiss – not to mention the fact that a true ‘happy ever after’ requires patience, understanding, and friendship.
And let’s be honest: all of this is pretty ground-breaking stuff for Disney, which used to have barely-legal princesses blindly marry the first person to come along and plant a non-consensual kiss on them while they were fast asleep. With that in mind, all hail Mary Poppins Returns, for giving us a romance that’s practically perfect in every way.
Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.