Picture this film: A young, precocious protagonist frolics about England and learns life lessons with an inexplicably magical friend. Years pass and our protagonist has grown up, built a family, and generally forgotten about the magic of their childhood. When troubles with work and finances spill into our protagonist’s personal life, this troubled father’s old magical friend returns to remind them of the power of childhood wonder.
Despite some initial resistance, the protagonist is eventually able to see the magic that surrounds their everyday life and reconnects with their children. This film is also a sequel to a beloved Disney film and is filled with colorful, delightfully period costumes and set pieces. Oh, and it was released in 2018 (and made lots and lots of money).
(Minor spoilers ahead!)
If you couldn’t tell from the title, I was describing two different films; “Christopher Robin,” the follow up to the “Winnie the Pooh” films of the 1960’s and 70’s, and “Mary Poppins Returns,” a sequel to the classic 1964 film, “Mary Poppins.” “Christopher Robin” follows the titular character as he reconnects with his famous stuffed animals while struggling to connect with his family. After learning to balance work and play, Christopher Robin’s reunited family visit The Hundred Acre Woods. “Mary Poppins Returns” takes the audience back to Cherry Tree Lane where the now grown Banks children are fighting to keep their childhood home. Michael Banks, a recent widower, hires his former nanny to help take care of his children. The magical caretaker reignites the spark of imagination in both the children and the adults.
After watching both films and realizing the astonishing similarities between the films, I decided it would be interesting to categorize and compare the elements of the film to explain why I feel one of these films worked better than the other. Minor spoilers to come!
The Befuddled British Father
As stated before, in both films the protagonist is an endearing, yet struggling, father. “Mary Poppins Returns” features Ben Whishaw as a grown up Michael Banks while “Christopher Robin” stars Ewan McGregor as the titular character. Both of these actors are excellent but the character of Michael Banks is definitely given more to work with. Banks spends most of the film with tears in his eyes, doting on his children and singing songs to his dead wife. He works at the bank but it doesn’t consume his life and he instead focuses on his family. Michael assumes the role his own father played in the first film, even briefly attempting to scold Mary Poppins for filling the children’s heads with “stuff and nonsense.” Fret not, however, as this is done with sufficient justification and leads to a satisfying emotional arc.
By contrast, Christopher Robin is a much more cookie-cutter character. He’s too distracted to notice his wife, he misses his own family’s vacation for work, and he is constantly sighing and eye rolling at his former teddy bears antics. If the few magical elements were taken out, the story is a fairly simple “dad works too much and needs to appreciate what he has” story. While Ewan McGregor was an excellent choice — and watching him stomp through The Hundred Acre Woods with Pooh and Piglet was delightful — the lack of depth in his character made the scenes and sequences unsupported by his fuzzy costars extremely dull. Also, I’m not sure that I will ever recover from watching a grown up Christopher Robin scream at Winnie the Pooh in a foggy and sinister Hundred Acre Woods.
Both these families are in need some magical intervention. | © Disney
The Magical Companion
While it is true that the fathers of these films are the protagonists in the traditional sense, the real stars of these films are the magical guides that facilitate their journeys of self discovery. Both are truly icons in their own right. Mary Poppins, of “Mary Poppins Returns,” is the fantastical nanny who flies about London using her talking umbrella and takes children into part live action, part hand drawn animation world to teach them life lessons. Winnie the Pooh, featured in “Christopher Robin,” is a teddy bear brought to life by Christopher’s imagination. He is obsessed with honey and spits out deep phrases about life, love, and friendship faster than an Instagram guru. These are the characters we came to see the movie for.
I’ll give you a quick spoiler on this section: I like them both. And why not? Pooh is voiced by Jim Cummings, the same man that has been voicing the role for over 20 years, and he is exactly how you remember him. Sweet, simple, completely giving, and completely loving. It really is the cartoon character come to life. If you are seeing this movie to watch Winnie the Pooh jaunt across the screen and say sweet catch phrases that make you tear up, you will be getting what you paid for.
These two are both practically perfect in every way. | © Disney
Mary Poppins, originally played by Julie Andrews but now by Emily Blunt, takes the character in a slightly new direction without losing the spirit of the original. While warm and maternal, Julie’s take on Mary Poppins (can I be on a first name basis with Julie Andrews?) could undeniably still be stern with her charges. When the children called her out on her magic, Julie’s Mary Poppins is must sharper with her retorts. When she, Bert, and the Banks children go on a carousel horse race, she fixes her hair and rolls her eyes as the boys rowdily egg each other on. This new Mary Poppins is a bit more fun-loving. Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins still sharply reminds her charges, young and old, to never to ask about a woman about her age but she also leaps onto the dance hall stage to perform a vaudeville-style number. The biggest addition this with new Mary Poppins is that the audience has a bit more of a clearer glimpse into her thoughts. We can truly see the cogs whirling as she determines what the children need, giving a new outlook on the prim and proper character.
The best things these films do with these characters is simply letting them be. These sequels are truly sequels and we don’t get a ton of backstory on these iconic figures. We don’t need to know where Mary Poppins got her carpet bag or why Winnie the Pooh wears a shirt but no pants. While whichever character you prefer is essentially personal choice, Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh are the strongest parts of their respective new films. Whether you like an old standard or a new take, I can safely say that these two are what made their original movies classics and their new films entertaining.
The Charming Design
While the two films are set in two slightly spaced out eras (“Mary Poppins Returns” takes place in pre World War II London, and “Christopher Robin” in post World War II London), the two have an undeniably similar look, at least initially. Well-tailored suits, colorful sweaters, and so many cute hats. The two also move from charming set piece to charming set piece, from cheery London parks to bustling cities that are somehow free of rubbish. The list goes on and on. And while both films are lovely to look at, one film takes it’s design choices above and beyond.
A candy colored world versus a sleek, period look. | © Disney
“Mary Poppins Returns,” as expected, takes place in a variety of fantasy worlds besides the traditional 20th century London hot spots. A bathtub becomes an ocean, a china bowl becomes a dance hall, and a repair shop is literally turned on its head. When the colorful costumes in dozens of different color palettes splash across the screen, it’s truly enchanting. Elaborate, vibrant, and evocative, the entire design looks like it came directly out of the 1960’s. While there is nothing bad I can say about the production design of “Christopher Robin,” as it was sleek and pleasant and probably my favorite part of the movie, it’s impossible to compare with the candy-colored display of “Mary Poppins.”
In the sea of Disney live action remakes, this sequel style definitely intrigued me especially. I was excited for a more original story rather than a rehash of an old standard. As such, it was disappointing to see two less-than-original stories but both films still have strong high points. After breaking these two sequels down, I would say the clear winner is “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Sorry Christopher, Mary Poppins flew away with this battle of the sequels. | © Disney
Just in time for Christmas, you can catch today’s winner, “Mary Poppins Returns,” at your local movie theater now.