Jane and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) don’t want another strict, unfriendly nanny. Their father (David Tomlinson), a banker, believes that they need discipline and strict guidance. Their mother (Glynnis Johns), a leader of the Women’s Suffragette movement, seems to agree with the children, but can’t really say so. The next morning, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) arrives and takes the job, based on an advertisement the children wrote. Soon, she is leading the children in song, displaying her magical spells and clearly enchanting the children in each and every way. She introduces the children to Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a street performer who seems to have some history with Mary and they are off on a magical journey.
“Mary Poppins”, released in 1964, represented a magical blend of live action and animation that, at the time, was technologically very advanced. Disney just released a 40th Anniversary DVD, complete with a second disc of interesting extras.
Watching the film again, I was struck by how rudimentary the special effects seemed. Then, remembering that this film was made in 1964, these same special effects became charming and wholly fitting for the story. The story is told through the eyes of the Banks children, and the use of these special effects helps to put us in their shoes. The story is set in Victorian England and it seems completely realistic that children in this era would see toy soldier marching into a toy box (stop motion), jump into a chalk drawing (2D animation) and watch their nanny sing to a bird (animatronics). The outdated look of these effects serves the point of view of the story beautifully and adds to the charm of it. We actually get a feeling that we are looking at a picture book as we watch the film. I can’t even imagine how slick and uninviting the same film would be if it were made today, with CGI special effects coming out of the woodwork.
Yes, the film is very saccharin at times, but this helps to define the viewpoint of the children as well. The story is told through their eyes. The struggles of their mother to win ‘the vote’, their father’s troubles at the bank, life in England at the turn of the 20th Century, are not going to be delved into too deeply. The children don’t know about these problems. If the film started dealing with the mother’s attempts to lead the suffragette movement, for instance, the viewpoint and the story would become off-balance.
One of the most delightful things about “Mary Poppins” is the musical score containing many classic songs. I’ve seen this film, or parts of it, dozens of times over the years. I think that even if you have seen it only once or twice, you probably remember many of the songs. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “Step In Time”, “Spoonful of Sugar”, “Jolly Holiday” and “Perfect Nanny” are all songs that I remember, and I can even sing a couple of lines for most. The true mark of a good Broadway musical is that you leave the theater humming the tunes. The same holds true for a musical film. All of the best musicals remain classics because we remember the songs. The Sherman Brothers created a great score of music and songs all of which served to enhance and supplement the story.
Watching the DVD, the second disc contains a making of documentary, a musical reminiscence with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and the surviving Sherman brother, a new animated short with Julie Andrews taking her grandchildren into a new chalk painting where they meet “The Cat That Looked Like A King” and more. There is also a brief featurette showing how the live action photography of Van Dyke and Andrews walking along the path for the “Jolly Holiday” number and the live action photography of “Step in Time” was superimposed with animation. While watching the making of documentary, I learned an interesting fact. Disney wanted the film to look like a Broadway play. All of the sets were fabricated on sound stages, adding to the idealized look of the entire film. “Chimpanzoo”, a deleted song is also included. Sung by Richard Sherman and illustrated by story boards for the deleted sequence, presumably, it would have been part of the “Jolly Holiday” number. It is probably better that it was left out of the film.
There are a lot more features on the second disc, too many to list. As is the case with the best Disney DVDs, it appears that they have included everything they could get their hands on. This makes the DVD a must-have for film scholars and collectors. Essentially, the best Disney DVDs are encyclopedias on the making of the films. Filmmakers, enthusiasts and scholars have the opportunity to learn so much from these DVDs, even if a lot of the material is sugar-coated.
This is Julie Andrews’s first film. Before this, she appeared on Broadway and in a television version of “Cinderella”. It is a truly remarkable, accomplished performance, amazing for someone acting in their first film. Andrews brings just the right blend of friendship, guidance and stern leadership to the role. Hand in hand as she enchants the children, she appears slightly annoyed at various points. And what is the relationship between her and Bert? These are questions left unanswered by the film, thankfully. If they were to remake this film, the filmmakers would probably feel it necessary to make her a former barmaid or tarted up boozer, make her back-story more explicit.
Dick Van Dyke was a more established star at the time. His television show was in full swing and he had previously appeared in the Broadway and film versions of “Bye Bye Birdie”. It might seem strange that a rising star would take what is essentially a supporting role, but I think he made a wise choice. He brings an unabashed enthusiasm to the role which is also very fitting. The entire film is meant to be seen through the eyes of Jane and Michael. Naturally, they would see a character like Bert as the neatest guy in the world. Van Dyke created a role that he will always be remembered for.
“Mary Poppins” is a classic. Every spoon full of sugar helps the film remain a classic in each and every way.