A Review of Mary Poppins Returns: Did They Really Just Sing About Rape?

I wasn’t in the best mood the day I left my spouse and kids to “preview” Mary Poppins Returns.  I had had an argument with an extended family member (maintaining healthy boundaries isn’t always easy) and I was already in a mood to pick a fight with someone as I entered the crowded theatre for the Saturday matinee on opening weekend.

The reason I was going alone was to determine whether or not the movie was appropriate for our children to see in a theatre (they are 4 and 5 years old). I’m a firm believer in heavily monitoring what kids see because their minds are soooooo impressionable when they are young.  

Also, my 5-year-old son is quite sensitive to scary scenes and always seems to pick-up the nuanced meaning in films.  (His take away from the the first Mary Poppins was frustration at the fact that women didn’t have the right to vote.  His take away from the Sound of Music was “who are the Nazi’s and why are they chasing Maria?” You get my drift.)

There I sat with my soda and popcorn buzzing with energy and anticipation. I couldn’t wait to see how the creators used all the new technology to make this show as fantastical as it could be, not to mention wanting to hear the amazing soundtrack.

The lights went out, the audience hushed and as the opening bars started to play I realized it had been a long long time since I had felt the “childlike” excitement that was racing through my body.  

Unfortunately that was the highlight for me, things just rolled downhill from there.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many splendid and whimsical moments in the show.  Hell, I even started crying when Dick Van Dyke broke into song and dance toward the end. However, those moments could not outshine the darkness I found within the subtle and not so subtle storylines, which is what made me want to share my reflections with you my readers.


Point #1: Mary Poppins Sings about a Metaphoric Rape

I’m gonna start with the most obscene and disturbing moment.  First let me provide the context.

The children, Jack, and Mary Poppins are enjoying themselves at the Royal Doulton Music Hall (i.e. an amazing world inside a special china bowl in the nursery) when Jack asks Mary Poppins to “sing us a song.”  

Initially reluctant, it only takes a small prod from Jack before Mary Poppins agrees.  Her demeanour quickly changes from that of a prim-and-proper nanny to that of a fancy free, happy-go-lucky barmaid type character.  

She and Jack proceed to sing a song trying to teach the lesson that you can’t always judge a book by its cover.  Yes, that is a great lesson.  No, you don’t teach it by using a metaphor for rape.

When Jack asks Mary Poppins to give him an example of what she’s trying to teach she belts this out:

Nellie Rubina was made of wood

But what could not be seen was though

Her trunk up top was barren

Well, her roots were lush and green

So in Spring when Mr Hickory saw her blossoms blooming there

He took root despite her bark

And now there's seedlings everywhere

I honestly don’t think I need to break this down but I am going to point out a few things.

An unattractive female tree (really Disney? Can’t we get more original than yet another ugly woman metaphor?) who isn’t much to look at tells a male tree (Mr. Hickory) she isn’t interested in his advances.  

Even after she “barks” and refuses him he still “took root,” (i.e. penetrated and impregnated) and she’s left to deal with all her “seedlings everywhere.”  Is it just me or can you see why I’m upset?

The next verse of the song goes on to talk about…wait for it…another woman! This one is wealthy and goes to the beach wearing nothing but “two feathers and a leaf,” thus another image of a woman in a compromised state of exposure.  Jack sings that it was just as well that she was barely dressed because...

...no one tried to rob her

'Cause she barely wore a stitch

For when you’re in your birthday suit

There ain’t much there to show you’re rich.

The last line insinuates that it if she flaunted her wealth she would have been a target for theft (or worse).  Really? Are we still victim blaming and shaming women for the clothes they wear?

It isn’t until the final verse that a male protagonist enters center stage.  Interestingly, it’s about a King who isn’t clever and doesn’t want to learn so he refuses to go to school.  His Queen spends a fortune on tutors in an effort to educate him (while she’s getting her hair done...again can’t we get more creative in what women do in their spare time?)  

Many clever men fail to teach the King and it isn’t until a “dirty rascal” swoops into town and teaches the King that he needs to accept who is and try to stop being “the kind of person that you’re not.”  In this song the King is encouraged to find happiness and live his truest path and the women get taken advantage of (or almost).

That’s it.  My two cents on a very tuneful song that has a memorable melody and a rhythmic beat that makes you want to tap your feet.  I’m mad at Disney for allowing these lyrics to ruin a perfectly clever and brilliant piece of music. AND I’m mad at Disney for not catching the harmful albeit subtle messages this song teaches impressionable children.

Shame on you Disney!


Point #2:  The Children are Responsible for the Emotional Wellbeing of the Family

In the original Mary Poppins the reason she comes to the Banks’ family home is pretty obvious.  Father needs to be reminded that his children are of value and in need of not only financial but emotional support as well.  

Throughout the original movie Mary Poppins uses her wit and people skills to get Father to realize what’s truly important in life: his family.  The children go on adventures and act in a manner that I deem appropriate to their developmental age.

In Mary Poppins Returns Michael/Father is a sensitive artist who dotes on his children and loves them.  YES!!! That was the one thing that Disney did right...gave us a loving, caring father who wants to do best by his children. Of course in classic Disney style...they made sure the mother was dead from the start of the story.  

Within the first few 30 minutes of the movie the children are told “how grown up” they’ve become since there mother died and they head out unchaperoned to buy food for the family breakfast (even though their father hasn't given them enough money).  Upon their return they learn they may lose their family home within the week due to the fact that their dad forgot to pay the house payment (his wife used to do that).

All I am gonna say is this: let children be children.  Stop making them grow up so fast. Stop expecting children to be the emotional caretakers of parents!  Stop promoting this idea to children in children's movies! Just STOP.


Point #3: Do Children’s Movies Always Need a Scary Scene?  

It was right after Mary Poppins sings her song about rape when the youngest Banks child is abducted by cartoon wolves who the children had met earlier and thought they were their friends (i.e. don’t judge a book by it’s cover).  This abduction was painful to watch as a parent and while watching I tried to imagine how my sensitive 5-year-old son would process what was happening.

I won’t go into great detail describing the scene.  Just know that the youngest sibling goes after his special toy and ends up in the back of the wolves’ “getaway” truck.  The older siblings notice a little too late and a chase ensues for what felt like 10-15 minutes of intense stress with siblings screaming and crying while trying to reach each other and villains laughing with crazy eyes and fire everywhere.   

Come on.  This is a children’s movie for goodness sake!  If my son had seen that on the big screen he would be sleeping in our room until he turned 19 years old! (Yes, I’m exaggerating to make a point.)  


The Wrap-up

Mary Poppins Returns is a good movie and there were many things I enjoyed. Emily Blunt was brilliant! Nevertheless, I am the filter for what my children see and I was definitely not taking them to see this on the big screen.  

What I did do was purchase the movie once it was available. During the scary scene the children take a bathroom break and I fast forward.  My other two issues with the movie aren’t as easy to “cover-up.”

Consequently, after they watched the movie the first time we had a discussion about realistic expectations for children and their parents. I still haven't decided how I am going to explain those lyrics to the kids.  As such, I just skip that song on the soundtrack so they don’t inadvertently learn the words. When they are older and able to cognitively understand I can explain the subtle message in the words.

At one point during the film I honestly thought the writers of this movie must have all been men who were extremely angry about the #metoo movement and this was there way to “piss on the parade” without getting their hands slapped in public.  The jury is still out on this one.

I shall leave you with powerful lyrics from the original Mary Poppins sung in 1964 (read that year again) pushing for equal rights for women. Remember, as a parent you are your child’s filter for everything.  As they grow you won’t be able to control as much as you can when they are young. Allow your child the opportunity to “be young” and free of adult stresses and worries.  

“No more the meek and mild subservients we!

We're fighting for our rights, militantly!

Never you fear!

So, cast off the shackles of yesterday!

Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!

Our daughters' daughters will adore us

And they'll sign in grateful chorus

"Well done! Well done!

Well done Sister Suffragette!"