I was recently asked to write a Lent course on Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to the original Disney film.
It reminded me of when I once heard a man describe Christianity as 'Disney'. He wasn't someone who had been to church or read the Bible. So he was working in the dark. But he was working with contempt and, perhaps, suspicion. I was interested that he didn't say that Christianity was a fairy-story. Some people do. No, he was more specific; it was Disney. Since he didn't know what he was talking about, I had to concentrate on what he did know, which was, evidently, Disney.
Disney is for children. It has implausible plots and unreal characters. Those characters, good or bad, ultimately get what they deserve. The tone is fundamentally jolly, with a bit of 'mild threat' thrown in somewhere near the middle. Disney stories always ends happily and optimistically. It's not the real world.
No one who has read the Bible, with whatever degree of scepticism, could embrace the Disney comparison. The Bible, especially in the lead-up to Easter, is for grown-ups. It has some implausible plots, but real characters. The rain falls alike on the just and the unjust. The tone is not at all (apart from maybe Jonah and a sprinkling of Psalms) jolly.
There are great slabs of threat, terror, injustice, courage, sacrifice, prostitution, bloodshed, hunger, politics, betrayal, envy, exile, evil and mayhem, all the way through. Even when it ends happily, that doesn't mean you can relax. The Bible is the real world. And you could say all the same things about Church. Okay, I was joking about church – or was I?
So he was wrong, that man. But I remembered him instantly, as soon as I was asked to write the Lent course. Because Disney and Lent don't seem to fit together. Disney does optimism. Bible does hope. Disney does getting cross. Bible does war.
Bible does love. Disney does 'lurv'. Bible does praying. Disney does wishing - upon a star. Disney does Jiminy Cricket (always let your conscience be your guide). Bible does Jesus Christ.
And yet, when I took a good hard look at Mary Poppins Returns, I found it wasn't doing utter Disney. There are some dancing animals, and some jollity and underwater japes. But the jauntiness slips and falters from time to time, and turns gritty. I wondered why. Why the wilderness moments, and the loss, the abuse of power, the not-at-all-mild threat of homelessness, the backdrop of hunger, the ongoing intentional motif of light and darkness? Why so much un-comfy reality? For there is certainly enough reality to help us explore Lent.
There is one entirely loving character in the story. No, it isn't Mary; she has always been waspish. And there is one character being crucified. There are some moments when I feel Mary really lets herself down by telling the children some utter codswallop about Death. And there is a song which genuinely reflects feelings of bereavement and meaninglessness, which many of us have, finally, to overcome.
I have an idea why so much grit got in. Take a look and see what you think. I believe it's because Disney tried to do two jobs at once: it tried to make a film for children, and, at the same time, a film for the children who grew up on the first film. That's us, the grown-ups. If you decide to look at the film and the Lent course together, see what you think. It's talking about more than just 'lurv'.
Lucy Berry is author of the Lent group study guide 'Where The Lost Things Go', based on the popular film, 'Mary Poppins Returns'.