Mary Poppins (1964)
Release Date: August 27th, 1964 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Stevenson Actors: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Elsa Lanchester, Jane Darwell
ne of Disney’s very best musicals, “Mary Poppins” is an unforgettable children’s classic. It combines supremely catchy songs, the forward and sarcastic dialogue of the unsurpassable Julie Andrews, and a psychedelic plot that employs cleanly integrated traditionally animated characters. Part fairy tale, part daydream, and all magic, the sights, music, and laughs propel this Academy Award-winning picture (Andrews took home the Oscar for Best Actress and the movie was nominated for a whopping 13 golden boys – the most of any Disney film) to the top of the lists for the greatest family films ever made.
The story begins with Bert (Dick Van Dyke) playing the role of guide and narrator, ushering the viewer to a home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane (as if inexperienced in the technique, the camera cuts on several occasions during the trip, taking the viewer out of the notion of following Bert). The sixth nanny in four months is about to dash out the door, upset at the constantly preoccupied Winifred Banks (Glynis Johns) and her two misbehaving children who have once again gone missing. When Mr. George Banks (David Tomlinson) comes home, he’s furious at the disorder, blames the kids and his wife, and insists upon personally hiring the next nursemaid. The two children, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber), create their own list of requirements for the prospective woman, but George scoffs at the notion and throws the paper into the fireplace.
The following morning, dozens of elderly ladies line the front yard, waiting for an interview for the newly open position. But with a powerful gust of wind, the lot of them is replaced by Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), who descends from the clouds with her umbrella and carpetbag and, mysteriously, the children’s list of preferences. Banks is all seriousness and professionalism, but he’s no match for the tricky verbal wizardry of Poppins, who not only hires herself, but also initially agrees only to a trial run. After dismissing the befuddled man of the house, she slides up the staircase (in a peculiarly reverse “The Exorcist”-like manner) to meet the troublemakers, and unpack her empty traveling bag (pulling out a hat rack, mirror, lamp, and more).
Poppins uses thaumaturgy and singing (starting off with the very famous “A Spoonful of Sugar” song) to tidy up their room (tables, toys, and doors all flap about in another playful scene oddly reminiscent of “The Exorcist”) before the trio departs for the park. There they meet Bert, who is creating chalk masterpieces on the sidewalk, and with a little more magical help from Mary Poppins, the group embarks on a fun-filled adventure into his artwork – firstly on a jolly holiday in a picturesque English countryside (the kids are curiously absent for the first two lengthy sequences with dancing penguins and barnyard animals), which segues into a merry-go-round horse ride through the park that transforms into a fox hunt and then a derby.
At first, it seems that practically perfect (and rather vain) Mary Poppins is there to straighten out the wily kids. But as the film progresses, it’s evident that Mr. and Mrs. Banks are the ones she’s there to fix. George is a well-ordered man absorbed with his work, who rarely has time for his children and their unseemly hullabaloo (and the sugary female thinking of his wife), while Winifred is leading women’s rights movements – an act conspicuously contrary to her subservient attitude toward her husband – and similarly prioritizes everything but attentive parenting.
A cheerful creativity surrounds the whole project, from the laugh-filled tea party on the ceiling of Uncle Albert’s (Ed Wynn) home, to the senile but punctual admiral (Reginald Owen) who commands a ship atop his house, to the tongue-twisting silliness of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The songs are some of the best of Disney’s canon, the mixing of cartoons with live action is visually adept, and Andrews’ performance is (spit) spot-on. Although the running time is noticeably lengthy for a family feature (the following year’s “The Sound of Music” was, of course, even longer) and the scripting of Poppins changed drastically from the original story by P.L. Travers (for the better), it is one of the most iconic and delightful musicals from Walt Disney – and one that has aged nicely and remains universally entertaining.
– Mike Massie