I finally watched Mary Poppins Returns. I knew I’d love it, so was waiting for the right time to watch it with the fam(ily). What a joy. Just lovely, and all the right kinds of callback to 1964’s original (the 54 year gap makes it the longest gap between any live action sequels). My children loved it too – and I’m glad they’d seen the original first. If you come to this cold, you’d miss out on so so soooooo much.
But while the secret to its success is its willingness to poach from the previous film, so many of its plot points are there in thousands of other films too. It backs up something I’ve been putting together for a while – a new way of looking at story structure.
I should say that, like Mary Poppins Returns, my attempts are not to add anything all that new. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m more like a marketing guy from Goodyear, trying to present it a bit differently – more user-friendly. I should also say this is just about the craft of blocking a story. The art of it is where the magic comes in. And there’s a whole heap of magic here, from casting to old-school animation to beautiful scenery to music.
So, spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns hereinunder. (We’ll do the below again with some other films in future posts, if you want to avoid and preserve your enjoyment of MPR.)
First, a quick crash course in other theorists’ story structures.
Joseph Campbell or Chrisopher Vogler might look at Mary Poppins Returns and note its ‘Hero’s Journey’…
Ordinary World: Michael Banks is now an adult, a single parent to three children, living in what’s left of the childhood home. All is not well, money-wise.
Call to Adventure/Refusal of the Call: This happens in a couple of ways. The arrival of the bailiffs jolts Michael into action to look for his share certificate (the MacGuffin), but ends up throwing away his old kite (from the first film). When Poppins appears, he refuses to believe that the magic from before was real.
Meeting the Mentor: Mary Poppins takes them on a new path of imagination and hope.
Tests/Allies/Enemies: Colin Firth as a seemingly nice bank manager turns out to be not so. A Royal Doulton bowl cements that idea. Other good and bad supporting characters weave in and out.
Approach to the Inmost Cave: The bank. Dun dun derrrrrr! Just like in the first film, the children approach the holy of holies, the fearsome Fort Knox, the bank vault itself… and then do a runner into scary London.
Ordeal: Michael nearly loses his job. He admonishes the kids, and Mary Poppins. They tried but made it worse.
Reward: They discover the share certificate but more importantly Michael finally believes his children. They’ve battled through London via Big Ben for a physical reward (the share certificate needs to be shown by midnight), and got their house back.
The Road Back: The literal road back down Cherry Tree Lane.
Resurrection: The family literally going up… with balloons, while singing ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’. And Michael resurrecting as the dad he used to be, and should be, and always wanted to be etc.
Return with Elixir: The family return home with reminders it wasn’t a dream – and Mary Poppins returns to the sky till needed again.
…That’s a rough quick version, with loads of bits missing. It’s all very nice and mythic and formulaic, but it can be tricky to remember your ‘ordeals’ from your ‘elixirs’ – which is why I’ve come up with this new one. See below, in a bit… but before that, here’s an incomplete skeleton structure based on Blake Synder’s Save The Cat…
Catalyst… The bankers arrive to issue their demand to seize the house
Fun & Games… Down the bathtub with Mary Poppins, ‘Can You Imagine That?’
Midpoint/False victory… We can sell Mum’s priceless bowl! Oh no we can’t.
Bad Guys Close In…
All is Lost… Michael nearly loses his job. The house is all but lost.
Dark Night of the Soul… A dark night indeed – lit by lamplighters (‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’)
Break into Act 3…
Finale… Showdown in the bank
…I won’t fill in all of them because a) you can do that if you like homework and b) I want to get onto my All-New Never-Before-Seen (except on writing courses that I’ve run for BBC Writers Room and London Screenwriters Festival) Story Structure that I call…
CALENDAR THEORY (copyright Paul Kerensa 2019)
Because those others, while great, can feel a little unwieldy and tricky to remember without buying their books, here’s my version, based on the calendar year…
JANUARY: New Year/new start… Like going back to work, it’s familiar but different. We need a reminder who everyone is. Oh, that’s Michael – I thought it was the kid. And like January, most films open with a frosty atmosphere. Nature’s alive, but hibernating, and the house certainly feels chilly.
FEBRUARY: Valentine’s… A fleeting encounter. On this occasion it’s the banking bailiffs. Starts off well but goes badly wrong when they serve notice. That encounter leads to an opportunity.
MARCH: Spring… seizes on that opportunity, marching us into Act 2. Kite disposal leads to Poppins.
APRIL: April Fool/April showers… when sun was forecast. It goes badly quickly when Colin Firth turns out to be evil and rains on their parade. In fact it literally rains. With Easter comes a glimpse up of the divine. In this case, Poppins! (There’s a whole essay to be done on what Mary Poppins has in common with Jesus – from a descension/ascension (Jesus didn’t have an umbrella though) to the way she dispenses wisdom by asking questions and letting the listener fill in the answers to work out for themselves, to her parable-like flights of fancy.)
MAY: The Maypole… sees sub-characters overlapping and underlapping, from bank managers to animated horses, switching allegiances and leading us on a merry dance. Just as the Mayfair mirrors Halloween, there’s shock and noise at the Royal Doulton Music Hall, but it’s safe. For now…
JUNE: A family picnic is rained off… metaphorically speaking. Foiled plans and false resolution. Mum’s old bowl is not their meal-ticket after all – it’s broken. Mary P sings ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’, to reassure them about their Mum. Sniff.
JULY: School’s out/the end of learning… They’ve tried logic – it’s not worked. Their upside-down visit to Topsy shows that it’s time to turn things upside down.
AUGUST: The long hot summer… Alright it’s not summer here – it’s pretty bleak – but this part often means trying new things, flying off to new locations, a montage, the hard graft of training (think Rocky), August playground visits to play with our skills before they’re needed, and maybe bumping into old friends who we don’t recognise out of school.
SEPTEMBER: Fall, when we think it’s still summer… Characters stumble (the children are caught listening to Colin Firth’s wicked plans at the bank). The dark of the plot draws in (a dark night in London lit up by lamplighters/’Trip a Little Light Fantastic’)
OCTOBER: Scares! Provoking a change. Digging deep etc. Here, it’s deadline’s day and the Banks family are all packed up ready to leave their home.
NOVEMBER: Fireworks! Heroic day-saving, via Big Ben’s steeple climb and a rush to the bank.
DECEMBER: The darkest day! …As bad as it can get. And didn’t Love Actually (wrongly) say that Christmas was a time when you tell people the truth about how you really feel? This is the moment for that, as Michael realises that he’s got all that matters.
…Oh and shop early for Christmas, ie. something we ‘bought’ earlier in the ‘year’ can be ‘given’ here (the kite we saw earlier contained the share certificate all along!)
…Christmas Eve rush – stores closing for Christmas! ie. The midnight deadline ticks on.
…And like Christmas, it’s not about the presents (the house) but the presence (they’ve got each other). Gifts, family and reunion.
…Finally, warmth after being exposed. Zoom out and the snow metaphorically falls (well, balloons rise, but similar) Inside, our heroes are protected. They have a house! There’s a New Year’s-ish celebration of colour and joy, and Mary returns home, and we’re back where we started, only a year on.
So there you have it. Thoughts? Do say. I mean, don’t judge it too harshly. The Cover is Not the Book.
I’ll keep coming back to this pattern – and test it with some other films and TV shows. It’s not practically perfect… but then what is?