Should I Watch..? 'Mary Poppins'
What's the big deal?
Mary Poppins, in case you've been living under a rock all your life, is a family fantasy musical film released in 1964 and is loosely based on the Mary Poppins books written by P.L. Travers. The film combines animation by Disney with songs written by the Sherman brothers and tells the story of a magical nanny summoned into service in Edwardian London to help bring two unruly children into line. The film stars Julie Andrews in the title role, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns. The film was released to universal acclaim from critics and secured thirteen Oscar nominations - a record for any Disney film - and won a total of five. In the years since its release, it has become a firm favourite with adults and children alike and is widely considered to be the crowning achievement of Walt Disney himself, who died a few years after its release.
What's it about?
In Edwardian London, one-man-band and jack-of-all-trades Bert is entertaining a crowd of on-lookers when he notices a change is in the air. He then introduces us to the dysfunctional Banks household on Cherry Tree Lane - head of the household George Banks is a career banker and has little time for his children and neither does their mother Winifred Banks who spends her time as a Suffragette. As a result, children Jane and Michael often find themselves alone and up to no good. As George returns from work, he is informed by Winifred and Ellen the maid that their current nanny has walked out.
George writes an advertisement for a new nanny which is far more direct than one written by Jane and Michael, which George tears up and throws onto the fire. But without anyone noticing, the torn letter floats up and out of the chimney and into the possession of mysterious magical nanny Mary Poppins who soon arrives at Cherry Tree Lane, much to Bert's delight as the pair have crossed paths in the past. The Banks children have no idea what adventures they are about to go on or what effect Marry Poppins' presence will have on the rest of the house...
Dick Van Dyke
Bill Walsh & Don DaGradi *
Release Date (UK)
17th December, 1964
Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical
Best Actress (Andrews), Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Original Song
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Set Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Music
What's to like?
Even the most culturally numb individuals will be aware of this movie, probably more so than poor P.L. Travers' books. It was probably the first time Disney produced a film that enchanted children and adults alike - a rare feat these days - and even after watching it again after so many years, it's so easy to be swept up in the film's undeniable magic. Andrews is a revelation in the lead, feeling completely different to her Maria in that other famous musical, The Sound Of Music. Poppins has a hint of playful mischief about her, conjuring up fantastical worlds and songs out of nothing. And what songs - hearing them again will either make you sing along yourself or remind you of a childhood spent tidying your room or playing in the same imaginary worlds Disney paints on the screen. It is truly joyous.
It's almost impossible to dislike Mary Poppins because there is just too much to enjoy. From Van Dyke's energetic performance as Bert to Ed Wynn's cameo as the floating Uncle Albert to the penguin waiters dancing in sync to Van Dyke and the unforgettable tunes. Even the technical aspects take the breath away like the nearly seamless blending of live-action and animation in a number of scenes. It felt revolutionary at the time, though it was far from the first film to do this. The film is a lively, bright and wonderful example of a practically perfect family film, the likes of which we see all too rarely.
- Travers was so appalled by the finished product, she fled the premier in tears and refused Disney permission to adapt any more of her work. Even the stage musical was only consented to on the condition that nobody involved in the film was involved in that production. Her frosty relationship with Disney was dramatized for the film Saving Mr Banks.
- At the premier in 1964, Walt Disney attended the showing in person which was only the second time he had attended one of his own premiers. The first time was in 1937 for Snow White And The Seven Dwarves.
- The film was shot entirely in Burbank, California and used over 100 painted backdrops to replicate the London skyline of 1910.
What's not to like?
Right, bear in mind that I am properly nit-picking here. If I'm being totally honest, I didn't get the scene with Ed Wynn floating about the house and laughing like a drain. It seemed like an intermission and didn't really fit in with what went before. It also signifies the point in the film where the magic and fantasy give way to harsh realities, even if soot-smothered chimney sweeps dance with joy on the rooftops of London. The scenes at the bank also fail to generate as much excitement as the film's first half and as a child watching, it was about this point that my interest waned.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention Van Dyke's legendarily awful accent, widely agreed to be one of the worst ever used in films. In an odd way, it actually adds to the film's charm now because it has become as iconic as some of the songs but in terms of characterisation, it reduces the character to an annoying sidekick who's always in the right place at the right time. Speaking of characterisation, the film differs greatly from the original books - the Poppins in the books is a strict, non-nonsense type who is both vain and contemptuous of the Banks children whenever they point out her magic. However, seeing as more people will be familiar with the film than the books these days, I think it's safe to say that Disney's interpretation of the role is better for the film.
Should I watch it?
The chances are, you probably already have. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't go back - Mary Poppins remains Disney's greatest live-action film by some margin and possibly the greatest film his studio has ever produced. Children will love the magic and animation while adults will recall the songs and probably join in singing them. So long after its release, the film has since become something to unite viewers young and old and it's now become the most-loved family film in history.
Great For: families, Disney, nannies, keen singers
Not So Great For: actual Cockneys, P.L. Travers' book sales
What else should I watch?
Disney has no shortage of family films, both animated and live-action. Since 1937 when he released the first feature-length animation into cinemas, Disney has provided audiences with epic fairy-tales and timeless stories to enchant and entertain. Even today, with films like Frozen and Big Hero 6, the company continues to work their magic - even if the animation is more computer-based than hand-drawn.
For some reason, live-action and animation seen side-by-side is still tantamount to magic to me. Ever since I first saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was fascinated by the secrets of how to interact with 'toons. Disney tried to repeat the Mary Poppins magic again in 1971 with the much-loved Bedknobs And Broomsticks and again in 1977 with Pete's Dragon. However, neither matched this beloved classic for sheer exuberance although they remain enjoyable pictures in their own right.
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© 2017 Benjamin Cox