Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Weirdly, Mr. Banks goes through the hero's journey—even though we would think of Mary Poppins and the kids as the main characters. But they don't really go through an inner crisis the way Mr. Banks does. This guy's headed for a workaholic breakdown, which could end with him running naked through a city fountain. Fortunately, Mary P. shows him the light…
At the beginning, George Banks seems to be content with his life. He's a successful bank manager, and he crows over the fact that it is "the age of men!" He seems to be loving life in the year 1910.
But, actually, we see that there's a lot missing in his world. Even though he loves his kids, he's detached from them, and he seems to be living in a separate world from his wife, who's involved in the struggle to win women the right to vote. He believes in discipline and order, but he won't let his natural fun-loving side show through. Society's repressed it.
Call To Adventure
Mr. Banks gets jolted out of his lame state of stasis when the children's nanny quits. Mrs. Banks hasn't been very successful and finding a permanent nanny, so Mr. Banks decides to take control: he's going to find the sort of strict, militaristic nanny he thinks will mold Michael and Jane into future bank managers.
But Michael and Jane have an alternative: they want a sweet, kindly nanny, who will play games with them. They even write an advertisement for this nanny, which they want their dad to put in the paper. Will Banks accept their offer?
Refusal Of The Call
Banks thinks Michael and Jane are hitting the cough syrup too hard. He tears up their ad and throws it into the fireplace. He refuses their call to action: they give him a chance to mix a "spoonful of sugar" in with the medicine of life, but he trashes the idea, and spits (metaphorically) right in the sugar.
The ad's fragments blow up the chimney, though, and somehow Mary Poppins gets a hold of it and restores it to its non-torn-up state. She soon arrives via flying umbrella, as the wind literally blows away all the boring, crabby-looking nannies Banks wanted to hire.
Meeting The Mentor
Mary P. enters the Banks house and astonishes George by presenting the ad he'd just torn up. He's too tongue-tied to hire her, so she hires herself.
Mary ends up becoming a kind of role model for Banks, even though he's not willing to accept this at first. She's going to be the kind of adult that Banks should be—someone who does add a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
By making Banks jealous of her, she forces him to recognize his own inner Mary Poppins. He needs to imitate Mary—and when he can do that, Mary won't be necessary anymore. She'll just fly off on her umbrella.
Crossing The Threshold
So, Banks allows Mary to work her magic on his household. He's letting it happen. Everyone seems cheerful. Mary takes the kids on one magical adventure after another, and even the maids perk up. Bert's around, doing his cockney thing. Things should be looking up, right?
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Mr. Banks doesn't know what to make of Mary. Is she an ally, an enemy, or what? Turns out the people he thinks are his allies (his co-workers at the bank) are actually his enemies, and the people he thinks are undermining him (Mary and Bert) are really on his side.
At one point, Banks gets fed up with Mary's popularity and decides to take steps to fire her—but Mary beats him to the punch, by suggesting that Jane and Michael visit the bank and learn about its values. Banks thinks he's going to be able to get the children to embrace thrift and discipline.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
But Banks didn't count on the fact that the bank is a boring place.
The kids get there, and are subjected to a song by the other bank managers and the guys who run the bank—Dawes Sr. and Dawes Jr. George Banks thought the kids were going to be hyped by all this financial savings stuff, but Michael just wants to use his tuppence to buy seeds to feed the birds with.
When Dawes tries to take the tuppence from Michael to forcibly invest it in the bank, Michael rebels and demands his tuppence back. The people in the bank get confused, and think that there's a "run" on the bank—they all start demanding to withdraw all their money from their accounts, causing a panic.
In the eyes of his employers, this reflects badly on George.
George expects to get fired—and does. After he trudges over to the bank at night, Dawes Jr. and Dawes Sr. blame him for Michael's actions and the ensuing panic, and George accepts full responsibility. He's out.
Everything he was talking about at the beginning of the movie—his disciplined and supposedly content life as a bank manager—is over.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
But, surprisingly, George realizes he feels pretty good. Actually, he feels "Supercalifragilistcexpialidocious!" Then, he remembers a dumb joke Jane and Michael learned from Mary Poppins' Uncle Albert. He laughs, and tells it to the bank managers, who don't get it (at first).
He leaves the bank in a great mood, still feeling "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" George is either having a nervous breakdown or finally loosening up the way Mary Poppins wanted him too—or maybe he's doing both?
The Road Back
The happy, hyper George who arrives home weirds everyone out. They all were worried he would jump into a river in despair or something.
But nope. He's discovered that he's actually freer now, and that the bank was a really a cage penning him in and preventing the real George from breaking out.
Now, he's back with his family and ready to start taking his dad game to the next level.
Instead of trying to force his small children to learn about investing their money, George gets a brighter idea: he decides to take them to fly a kite. They sing the song "Let's Go Fly a Kite" as they head down to the park. Mrs. Banks joins them and uses her "Votes for Women" sash as the tail of the kite.
George has finally learned to embrace the role Mary Poppins once played—and, consequently, Mary has to leave. (Or, technically, she has to leave because the wind changed, but whatever. This is the real reason). The kids say their tearful goodbyes—but they've got their father back, so it's a decent trade. Looks like they're a real family again!
As an added bonus, they see Dawes Jr. at the park, who tells them that Dawes Sr. finally got Banks' joke and died laughing. But, no harm, no foul: Dawes' dying wish was to re-hire George as a partner in the bank. George accepts the new job.
Return With The Elixir
Now that Mr. Banks is a first rate dad again, he's ready to spread the same sort of joy that Mary Poppins is capable of spreading. He's going to have fun with his kids, and add "a spoonful of sugar" to all of their lives. That's the elixir—his newfound ability to express fatherly love and unite his family with kindness. If he ever gets a "World's Best Dad" coffee mug, he'll have earned it.