Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Mary Poppins

December 15, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Julie Andrews

It’s been a minute since I timed one of these articles with the release of some recent feature, but it seemed like an appropriate thing to do. Mary Poppins Returns is likely to dominate the Christmas season by pulling on the nostalgia of most of the living populace (including my eighty-year old grandmother, who never goes out to the movies). And with something like that, it’s worth taking a look back at the original and why the memory of it can pull such a large audience together.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Mary Poppins

Wide Release Date: August 27, 1964
Directed By: Robert Stevenson
Written By: Bill Walsh & Don DaGradi, based on Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
Produced By: Walt Disney & Bill Walsh
Cinematography By: Edward Colman
Edited By: Cotton Warburton
Music By: Richard & Robert Sherman (songs) and Irwin Kostal (score)
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Distributed By: Buena Vista Distribution
Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Dick van Dyke as Bert
David Tomlinson as George Banks
Glynis Johns as Winifred Banks

What Do We All Know?

While Walt Disney is better known for its animation (to the point that most of its in-house live action product today are painfully average remakes of beloved animated classics), I think it’s safe to say that Mary Poppins is as iconic as Disney movies get. Very loosely adapted from P.L. Travers books, the film was a glowing success, topping the box office for 1964 over such luminous titles as A Fistful of Dollars, Goldfinger and My Fair Lady (something I’m sure must have been especially sweet for Julie Andrews). The film won five of its thirteen Oscar nominations, for its music (score and original song), visual effects, editing, and Best Actress for Julie Andrews’ film debut. And while it didn’t win, it garnered Walt the only Best Picture nomination he would receive, something I’m sure meant a lot to a man often dismissed because of the “animation ghetto”.

Mary Poppins had an obvious impact in its own time, but the benefit of being a film that is primarily for children is that it’s a movie that gets passed down from generation to generation. Most of what I know from the film actually comes from watching the Sing-Along Songs VHS tapes (“Follow the bouncing ball!”), a perfect example of how Disney is able to repurpose and rebrand its classic material for new audience. Saving Mr. Banks proved that the film was still captivating to modern audiences; while it’s a very Disney-fied take on the true events, the fact that Disney made a movie acknowledging that one of their most beloved characters is a far cry from what P.L. Travers wanted it to be is something worth noting. It also adds a new layer of understanding to the movie itself, as we get some idea of what Travers and Disney were trying to accomplish with a character that meant a lot to them, despite their opposing viewpoints. And of course, we’re about to get a sequel. So, how did Mary Poppins achieve such a beloved status?

What Went Right?

Mary Poppins looms large in the industry to this day because it’s a practically perfect version of the thing it wants to be. It’s a shamelessly joyful, upbeat family movie that moves most of its plot along through song and only drops that veneer when it’s necessary to drive home its message to the parents in the audience. Julie Andrews is an irreplaceable talent who’s charm, poise and entire demeanor makes her perfect for the role even if you forget that she once possessed one of the most astonishing soprano voices we’ve had the privilege to hear. Add in the colorful costumes, striking sets, amusing side characters, astonishing visual effects and a healthy assist from the ever amiable Dick Van Dyke, and you’ve got a movie that is bound to hold the attention and capture the imagination of any child who watches it. Frankly, it would be almost impossible to replicate the concoction of ingredients that made Mary Poppins work without simply being a rip-off of the film. And that’s why it still towers today – nobody has done a film like this any better, with most being smart enough to avoid trying.

One thing that stuck out to me on this viewing was just what an incredible technical achievement this movie was in its own time. This is something that’s kind of lost as time goes by, but this is a truly ambitious movie in terms of what it’s trying to show us. Everyone remembers the 2D animated characters brought in for “It’s a Jolly Holiday”, but that was done before and would be done infinitely better in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It’s still really impressive, to be sure, but it’s not the only thing this movie does. The wire-work on Mary (and later everybody else during “I Love to Laugh”) is cool, the “play the film backwards” trick used to clean up the room in “A Spoonful of Sugar” is really cool, and little details like Mary sliding up the staircase railing or the carousel horses just make the whole film feel magical. And while it’s not exactly a visual effect, the choreography for “Step in Time” is ambitious and holds up today as a standout sequence. There’s just a lot to love here, and it’s easy to understand how so much of the film became iconic. In many ways it’s a series of vignettes, but each one of those vignettes is given the utmost respect and effort to make sure it works.

While time has had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the impressive visual effects, nothing can erode the quality of Robert and Richard Sherman’s lyrics. Mary Poppins is bursting with quality songs, with another dozen or so left on the cutting room floor. The Sherman brothers were excellent at their jobs, and I feel they made one of the all time classic song collections Disney has ever had. While it doesn’t quite have the song-for-song consistency of say, Beauty and the Beast, it makes up for it in sheer volume. “The Life I Lead”, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Jolly Holiday”, “Chim-Chim Cheree”, “Step in Time” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” are all iconic, and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is basically transcendent in its sheer audacity. And I’m barely scratching the surface here: “Sister Suffragette” is hilarious, “Stay Awake” is a wonderful lullaby, “I Love to Laugh” is infectious, and “Feed the Birds” is somber and thoughtful in a way that really stands out. With nearly an hour of quality music (much of it featuring Julie Andrews’ angelic voice), it’s hard to go wrong here.

Lastly, I have to talk about the film’s more somber elements. When I was a kid, I didn’t really appreciate the beginning or final stretches of the movie where the focus is on Mr. and Mrs. Banks. As an adult, I’m a little more sophisticated in how I consume movies, thankfully, so watching these scenes with a new lens was probably the most rewarding part of seeing a full movie I probably hadn’t watched in at least two decades. While the fun and appeal of the movie is in watching Mary Poppins take the Banks children on little adventures, the heart and soul of the movie is with Mr. Banks, who is obsessed with his job and keeping his house in order while never really connecting with his wife and children. This message is sort of a given, considering 1964 was just coming out of the 1950s and Mr. Banks’ approach to life is pretty much exactly what men were expected to do, but I imagine taking the family to this movie and seeing the narrative play out did get into the psyches of some men. For me at least, it’s an extra dimension that makes me see the movie as more than just a kids movie, but as something that was made for the benefit of entire families.

What Went Wrong?

If you’re expecting me to rant about how this movie is a grave injustice to P.L. Travers, then you probably haven’t read many of my more recent reviews about movies adapted from books. Disney clearly had a very, very different idea about what he wanted his Mary Poppins to be, and it something of a shame that as a culture we think of Poppins more as a Disney creation and not so much as the books that Travers wrote. But different does not always equal bad; I always point to Frankenstein, a movie that bears little resemblance to the book but is an absolute classic in its own right. And I feel that Mary Poppins is in that same boat. I’m not interested in its flaws as an adaptation, merely in the few flaws it has as a movie.

The most apparent flaw is Dick Van Dyke’s terrible approximation of a Cockney accent, one which would probably feel like a caricature if Van Dyke wasn’t as charming and lovable as he is. Bert is a great character, and a net good for the movie, and Van Dyke is as unique a talent as Julie Andrews, just in a different way. But, yeah, it does strain credulity. A more substantive problem for me is the scene where Mr. Banks takes his children to the bank, particularly the song. Taking a scene that is meant to be boring for the children in the movie and making it entertaining for the children watching the movie just seems to be too tall of a mountain to climb, resulting in a scene that lacks authenticity and thus doesn’t work quite as well as it should.

And In Summary…

Mary Poppins is absolutely deserving of its legendary status. P.L. Travers summed it up best in a 1977 interview: “I’ve seen it once or twice, and I’ve learned to live with it. It’s glamorous and it’s a good film on its own level, but I don’t think it is very like my books.” As its own thing, Mary Poppins is a near perfect family movie, being equal parts entertaining and sentimental. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke are special artists who deserve to live forever, and I imagine this movie will keep their memories alive for quite a while longer. As for Disney, the film is a testament to his determination to repurpose literature and mythology with his own branding, but also indicative of his creative genius and ability to recognize and mobilize the best talent in the industry. It is his crowning achievement, and one of the very best films of its era.

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