Entertainment

Mary Poppins: why we need a spoonful of sugar more than ever

The animation, the Hollywood version of Edwardian England, the playful verbosity of the songs and above all, as, surely would this: the co-option of Mary Poppins as a feminist.

It is an irritating reflex to take beloved figures from childhood fiction and bend them to adult political ends, The original Poppins is not quite the spit-spot version with whom most of us are familiar.

Poppins is a cypher at the heart of the movie who exerts influence not, as Mr Banks specifies in his advert in the Times, through a combination of beady observation and strategic obliviousness. She is impatient, indignant, above all incredulous when presented with the weakness of others.

What is the purpose of this? The movie implies that Poppins is part of the longstanding dramatic tradition of the stranger as agent of moral change. One can laugh at the cod-profundity of the lines.

It is her mission to critique the English: coldness as a vehicle for stability; blind adherence to tradition and emotional detachment as modes mistaken for virtue, all of which, over the course of the movie, Poppins smartly dismantles.

There might have been a question of warmth with the character, were Julie Andrews not such a nuanced performer and there is real pathos in her Poppins, not just in the sadness when she says goodbye to the children, but in the nearest the movie gets to a torch song – a top pick for karaoke! – Feed the Birds. The mad woman on the steps of St Paul’s is all of us and do not make me quote Gilbert and Gubar to prove it.

This is not quite true. For all her seeming invulnerability, She is a stoic who counters the stoicism of Mr Banks. She does not have a love interest, which in the context of Hollywood heroines might be considered the most radical thing about her.

And so she will fly back into our lives this Christmas. The makers of the new film say it is their intention to reintroduce joy at a particularly grim moment in history, but with Poppins it was never a question of joy pure and simple.