Mary Poppins (1964)

A man with a book he read to his daughters at bedtime. A stuffy author who refused to allow the movie to be made. A pair of songwriters at the peak of their game. A young ingenue who only made a name for herself on broadway. A TV comedian who was ready to shine. These magical ingredients were brought together to create one of Hollywood’s best known and best loved movies of all time. Even for Walt Disney, this was a big one, since it was a culmination of everything he’d learned in the 40+ years he spent in the industry. And scarcely two years later, he passed away. But does it hold up, with the new Mary Poppins Returns movie now out?

Join jumping into this joyous, jolly jamboree of joviality!

The plot: Jane and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) are the children to George and Winnifred Banks (David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns). Mrs. Banks is a suffragette and Mr. Banks is a banker, both of whom are too distracted in their own affairs to take care of the children, leaving them in the hands to a slew of nannies who keep quitting due to the kids’ unruly behavior. The latest is a mysterious woman named Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), whose demeanor is that of a strict caretaker, yet seems to wield some kind of magic abilities, much to the kids’ surprise.

As Mary has the children in her care, they, along with a cockney jack-of-all-trades named Bert (Dick van Dyke), go on numerous adventures, from floating tea parties and frolicking in an animated countryside to cavorting on rooftops with chimney sweeps. But as the children and everyone else is charmed by these whimsical escapades, Mr. Banks’ structured world of order starts to crumble.

How’s the writing?: This is a ridiculous project from the word go. The movie is based off a series of disjointed vignettes, littered with poems and Britishisms most Americans in the sixties wouldn’t get, while working with an author who disagreed with most everything, turned into a 2 hour, 19 minute movie littered with whimsy and frivolity coupled with a somber lesson for adults. By all accounts, it had no business being as successful as it turned out to be. And boy howdy, are we thankful for that!

The characters are so likeable, so endearing, they radiate good vibes. The story acknowledges that it’s more “slice of life” than a true narrative arc, so it’s unafraid to take detours that don’t necessarily add to the story. It’s just following Jane and Michael as they go through various episodes, and the fantastic things that happen to them. This lets us just relax and absorb, further allowing us to forego logic and just accept the magic.

Does it give the feels?: Oh heavens, yes! The lynchpin if the story is the children’s attachment to the adults in their lives, particularly Mary, Bert, and their father. They love Mary because of all the fanciful adventures they get into. And they love Bert for his freewheeling nature and kind heart. Their relationship with Mr. Banks, however, is much more…complicated. They seem both mystified by his seemingly uncaring attitude and yet they still want his approval. They don’t seem completely driven by that need, nor should it be. But it is there, and they clearly want him to be happy. And at the film’s third act, the film shuffled its focus onto Mr. Banks himself, who seems to be in most need for Poppins’ magic. When the bank turns on him and he makes his lone, somber walk back to the institution, you feel the weight on his shoulders, and confronting his world that sustained him for so long, suddenly give way. It’s a tragedy, through and through.

Who makes it worth it?: There’s a slew of great characters here. Julie Andrews is perfectly enigmatic as the titular Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks even has an air of likeability to him despite his harsh attitude. However, my personal favorite is Bert, dreadful accent and all.

Bert is just a lighthearted guy who seems to be homeless, but he’s too busy enjoying the things he does to fret about anything. It’s even obvious from the get-go he has a great big heart that he shares with the kids, particularly when he finds them running away from their father. Bert’s always been the kind of guy I always wanted to be: even if he’s not exactly the richest guy in town, he’s just enjoying the little things so much he doesn’t seem to mind.

Best quality provided: The same things you guys all love: the music and the technical wizardry.

The songs are immaculate. They’re fun, bouncy, emotional, and peak Sherman Brothers. They beg to be sung along with. The choreography is stellar, even for a guy like me who doesn’t really care for big dance sequences. Everyone just looks like they’re having so much fun doing it. It’s just plain infectious.

The technical aspects ought to be window dressing to serve the story at large. And they are (Considering the loose nature of the story, anyway). But the tricks do hold up, even over fifty years later. Part of it the actors who threw themselves so wholeheartedly into the production, and have such genuine, unabashed joy in what they’re doing. That’s what sells it. Even the kids get in on this. In the scene where Jane and Michael are getting their medicine, Karen Dotrice admitted she had no idea the liquid coming out of the bottle was going to change color, hence her startled shriek. That’s all pretty cool.

What could have been improved: Despite Emma Thompson’s insistence otherwise in Saving Mr. Banks, it’s not about the father, but the kids. Don’t get me wrong; Dotrice and Garber did great, but I’m a bit confused about something. In the first few minutes at the Banks household, it’s established the kids are such rambunctious brats they drive away every nanny they hire. They admit they do small-time pranks (They ain’t McAllisters), but why don’t we see any evidence of this?

They admit they didn’t so much run away from Katie Nana (Elsa Lancaster) so much as pursued an errant kite, yet she insists this is the fourth time they’ve run off. True, they ran away from their father after the run on the bank, but that was because they were spooked from the chaos. At most, you could point to their messy room and Michael calling Mary “tricky”, but where are the wild, uncouth children we were told about? Especially since for most of the film, they seem pretty obedient to whomever tells them to do things, not just Mary Poppins.

Ideally, the film should not have pressed this idea that they were unruly kids in need of someone like Mary Poppins. If it did, the plot would have focused more on their arc and development. If it were supposed to be about Mary coming to repair the bond between the kids and their parents, then the plot would have worked better. All that could have been needed was a retiring nanny and Mr. Banks under stress having to spend time with the kids. Boom. There you go. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Verdict: Everyone should see Mary Poppins at some point in their lives. It’s whimsical, charming, and funny, but it also has notes of somber emotion. It’s not just about re-embracing one’s childhood, but also about how even the smallest acts of kindness and belief in wonderful things can make things better. It’s a bit disjointed and not quite as fluid as more modern film are in teaching this lesson, but because it relies on emotion with fun, engaging characters, we give it a pass. I give it eight spoonfuls of sugar out of ten.

Coo, what a sight!

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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