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Mary Poppins: which movie had better songs?

It’s school holidays, and there’s been less time than usual to listen to music as my two daughters have commandeered the stereo. They’ve always enjoyed musicals like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. We recently watched Mary Poppins Returns at the cinema, and ever since my Spotify account has endured endless replays of Emily Blunt, Julie Andrews, and friends. I’ve never covered musicals on this blog before, but if life gives you Poppins, make Pop-Tarts.

While Mary Poppins Returns is ostensibly a sequel to the original, it’s a sequel in the same way that Star Wars’ The Force Awakens is to A New Hope. It’s set decades later and features a new generation of characters, but it’s a clear photocopy of the original, with the same structure.

So while Mary Poppins Returns features all new songs, each of the nine new songs has a clear counterpart from the original movie. I’ve identified nine pairs of parallel songs, and with my expert team (my two daughters – Alicia aged seven and Keziah aged four) we’ve compared the songs from the two movies, picking a winner from each bracket.

(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky vs Chim Chim Cher-ee

Both opening songs introduce the male leading character – Bert’s theme, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’, is among the motifs introduced in the overture of Mary Poppins, and it’s returned to later in the movie with ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Pavement Artist’. Mary Poppins Returns opens with Lin-Manuel Miranda singing Jack’s theme song, ‘(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky’. Miranda is Mary Poppins Returns‘ ace card – Dick Van Dyke is a plucky and irritating character actor with a bad cockney accent, while Miranda has a lovely voice.

‘(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky’ wins 3-0

A Conversation vs The Life I Lead

The Banks patriarch in each movie states their case in song, restating each film’s central plot dilemma. Michael Banks is clearly distraught at the unfortunate circumstances he’s found himself in. George Banks is gloriously oblivious to the issues surrounding him, spouting terrific lines like “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910/ King Edward’s on the throne; It’s the age of men.” There are lots of sad songs, there aren’t so many when the narrator’s a pompous ass, and ‘The Life I Lead’ is a lot of fun.

‘The Life I Lead’ wins 3-0

Can You Imagine That? vs A Spoonful of Sugar

The moment Mary Poppins introduces the Banks children to her playroom sorcery is accompanied by a rousing musical number. Both songs are among the most recognisable from their respective film – I found it hard to go past the iconic ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, but both children opted for ‘Can You Imagine That? ‘

‘Can You Imagine That’ wins 2-1

The Royal Doulton Music Hall vs Jolly Holiday

Both of these songs are the opening numbers from their film’s animated sequences. ‘Jolly Holiday’ is probably the more substantial song, but it also features Bert at his most dated (“Forbearance is the hallmark of your creed”) and most obnoxious.

‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ wins 3-0.

A Cover is Not the Book vs
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

The parallel structures of the film means that two of the best songs from the franchise are up against each other. ‘A Cover is Not the Book’ has a lot going for it – Miranda’s era-appropriate rapping and Blunt switching to coarse cockney. And Blunt’s opening line “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly – D-flat major” is my favourite moment from the film. But ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ is iconic, and we all voted for it.

‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ wins 3-0.

The Place Where Lost Things Go vs Stay Awake

Mary Poppins Returns is a more serious film than its predecessor, and this means that its emotional ballad has more power. Julie Andrews’ pure voice is beautiful on ‘Stay Awake’, but ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ is the emotional centrepiece of Mary Poppins Returns. Keziah specified that her vote is for the version when the children sing.

‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ wins 3-0.

Turning Turtle vs I Love to Laugh

Both films have a bizarre scene where they visit an eccentric relative – in Mary Poppins it’s Ed Wynn’s ‘Uncle Albert’ and in Returns it’s Meryl Streep’s Topsy. ‘I Love to Laugh’ has a fun juxtaposition between Andrews’ dignity and Van Dyke’s goofiness, but three minutes of artificial chortling doesn’t bear repeated listening. ‘Turning Turtle’ is the most grating songs from Mary Poppins Returns, but it’s still an upgrade.

‘Turning Turtle’ wins 3-0.

Trip a Little Light Fantastic vs
Step In Time

These songs are clear parallels – both long, choreographed scenes with a surfeit of working class men. ‘Step In Time’ has the more memorable choreography, and Alicia opted for it for that reason, but I prefer ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ musically – Miranda’s voice is prettier than the chorus of chimney sweeps, and the rhyming slang section is fun.

‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ wins 2-1.

Nowhere to Go But Up vs Let’s Go Fly A Kite

The ending sequences of both movies are clearly parallel, both symbols of renewal and hope. ‘Nowhere To Go But Up’ clearly echoes its predecessor, and ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ is another iconic song that’s taken on a life of its own outside the film. Keziah, free from the weight of society’s expectations, opted for ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’; it’s her favourite song from the new movie.

‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ wins 2-1.

Results

The original movie had several more songs than the sequel, and some favourites didn’t have a counterpart in the new movie – in particular, ‘Feed The Birds’ was a personal favourite of Walt Disney. But overall, our voting panel opted for the Mary Poppins Returns songs in 6 out of the 9 matchups. This was mainly a result of enjoying Miranda’s vocal performances more than Van Dyke’s, and relating to the more modern approach of Mary Poppins Returns.

Despite the numerical win to Mary Poppins Returns, the original has several songs that have taken on a life of their own – everyone knows the nonsense phrase ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. Even though the new soundtrack may be more consistently enjoyable for a young audience, I don’t know if any of these new songs will become standards.

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