Cheer for Chim-Cheree!
For Walt Disney, 1964's Mary Poppins was the culmination of perhaps the greatest challenge of his career. Over twenty years were spent trying to convince author P.L. Travers to sign over the rights to make a film based upon her stories of a magical nanny. It was a promise made to his daughters that Walt intended on keeping, and think what you will about his professional and private lives, he truly dedicated himself to ensuring that the final product was as delightful as it deserved to be. Fortunately, his efforts weren't in vain, for Mary Poppins has entertained and influenced countless audiences for going on fifty years. As a grown-up revisiting the movie for its Blu-ray debut, it's certainly more noisy than I recall, yet it still holds a great deal of the pleasures and charms that cast a spell on me during my first childhood viewing.
This most enduring of cinematic fairy tales opens in Edwardian England, where the Banks family is experiencing a spot of turmoil. With Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) consumed by his job and the missus (Glynis Johns) leading the charge for women's rights, there's hardly anyone at home to keep watch over their little ones. Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) are bright kids who are prone to mischief regrdless, requiring a firm but loving hand to guide them along. Enter Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), a governess who literally swoops down from the clouds and into the Banks clan's life, instantly capturing the hearts and imaginations of the tykes in her charge. With a little help from jack-of-all-trades Bert (Dick Van Dyke), Mary takes Jane and Michael on one wonderful adventure after another, intent on not only letting them have fun but on teaching them to grow closer to their folks, as well.
Even though about twenty years had passed since I'd seen it from start to finish, Mary Poppins still holds a special place in whatever part of my heart hasn't been conquered by cynicism. This was a big deal when I was a kid, one of the few times I recall my parents renting a movie from the video store and declaring that we were all going to watch it as a family. I simply loved it, but nowadays, I have to admit that not all of Mary Poppins has aged as well as I anticipated. Much of the production's humor skews extremely broad, which wouldn't have been such a bother had it not been so prolonged. This thing clocks in at just short of two and a half hours, an eternity for something that works so hard at being as relentlessly cheery as it does. All the rampant whimsy feels forced and overwhelming at times, which certainly grants the more quiet moments a greater resonance but makes you want to deck the next wacky extra mugging for the camera the rest of the time.
We'd really be in trouble if the film was all smile and no soul, but Mary Poppins is far too clever to let that happen. Though its surface indicates a flashy spectacle designed to occupy little kids, the story -- much like its title character -- has something in store for an older demographic too. Mary Poppins is as much about Mr. and Mrs. Banks learning to be around for their children in their formative years as it is about Jane and Michael realizing their parents love them, although they may not always show it. Woven amidst the ballyhoo and show-stopping musical numbers are kindness, understanding, and emotional maturity, each theme embodied to a tee by Mary herself. She's not one to preach or let it known that she's in on the joke, easing into her lessons with expert precision that would take a miracle worker to pull off onscreen. Luckily, Andrews is the right gal for the job, an absolutely perfect fit for a role that calls for her to simultaneously be tutor, songstress, playmate, and mentor. While the same can't be said for his infamous accent, Van Dyke's physicality is in fine form, supporting Andrews from the sidelines with an array of kicks, flips, and dance moves that will be forever phenomenal.
I could go on further about what doesn't hold up so well about Mary Poppins (the noticeably dodgy visual effects) versus what's just as enchanting as you remember (pretty much all of the songs). The point is that, as cliched and overused as the sentiment is, the film has an incredible amount of heart, a twinkle in its eye that struck a chord with viewers and will undoubtedly shine for another five decades. Ms. Travers might not have ultimately cared for Mr. Disney's Mary Poppins, but there's a whole world of people for whom a spoonful of sugar still does just the trick.
-Becoming Mr. Sherman, a conversation between Mary Poppins songwriter Richard Sherman and actor Jason Schwartzman, who portrays him in Saving Mr. Banks.
-Mary-oke, a selection of sing-along music videos with brand-new animation.
-Behind-the-scenes featurettes covering the making of Mary Poppins, the creation of the stage musical, the world premiere, and more.
-A deleted song, "Chimpanzoo."
-The Cat That Looked at a King, a short film inspired by the "Mary Poppins" books.
-Audo commentary with Andrews, Van Dyke, Dotrice, and Sherman.
(Released by Walt Disney Home Entertainment and rated “G” by MPAA. DVD bonus materials unrated.)