Internal vs. External Struggles

“Mary Poppins Returns” is nowhere near the classic that the original “Mary Poppins” was, but it strives mightily anyway. One huge difference between the two movies is the villain.

In “Mary Poppins,” the struggle is really between Mr Bank’s stubborn attitude towards the way he treats children and his eventual change to realize he needs to spend more time with them. Thus the struggle is internal in getting Mr. Banks to change emotionally.

In “Mary Poppins Returns,” the struggle is between Michael Banks not having enough money and the evil banker who wants to repossess his house. This struggle is external and that’s the problem right there.

External struggles are always less interesting and emotionally satisfying than internal struggles. Think of all those bad “Jaws” sequels where the whole goal is to kill a shark. It’s hard to sustain much interest in that goal which is why those bad “Jaws” sequels have a shark leaping out of the water and biting a helicopter out of midair.

Internal struggles, by their nature, are about emotions so when the emotional change occurs, it’s far more satisfying than watching pointless special effects.

In “Mary Poppins,” the whole struggle is focused on teaching the kids to to clean up after themselves and enjoy life while also teaching Mr. Banks that there’s more to life than just working and putting up appearances, but that his family is far more important too.

So when the kids learn to be better behaved and Mr. Banks learns to appreciate spending time with his children, that’s an internal struggle that makes “Mary Poppins” so emotionally satisfying.

Now look at “Mary Poppins Returns” and the struggle is more about Michael Banks trying to save his home while an evil banker wants to repossess it. The only way to make this struggle interesting is to keep layering on more action, which ultimately feels meaningless and pointless in the end.

Great movies always rely on internal struggles rather than external struggles to create a compelling story. Lousy movies tend to rely too much on external struggles and that’s what makes them dull and boring as a result.

“Die Hard” wasn’t just about overcoming a terrorist army (external struggle) but about the hero getting back with his wife (internal struggle) by realizing he was to blame for their breakup in the first place.

In a balanced story, the external struggle always keeps forcing the hero to confront the internal struggle. Once you know the internal struggle, then you can shape the external struggle to keep forcing the hero to face the internal struggle.

If you only focus on an external struggle, you’ll create a far less compelling and interesting story. That’s the difference between “Mary Poppins” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” and that’s why “Mary Poppins” still remains the far more superior movie.

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