Disney’s interpretation of P.L. Travers’ stories of a nanny and the Banks family has gone down in history as a classic of the studio’s canon, and, upon rewatching it, I can see why as it seems to work on different levels for children and adults while also having parts that work for both. However, having recently watching Saving Mr. Banks, a few extra questions were also raised about the nature of Mary Poppins.
Primarily among these was how true (or I’m assuming not) the film is to the source material and quite whether its message is one that comes from the books, or is one put in their by Disney. Either way its message is something that I found surprising coming from the often-conservative Disney studio as it is, largely, subversive, albeit still based in a love of family and children.
It is this, more message based, reading of the film that I think is where part of the appeal for adults comes. Despite the title it is the story of Mr. Banks, showing his development as he starts the film as a stiff and highly strung bank manager weighed down by the worries of the world and wanting everything to run to precision. But, as Mary Poppins influence takes hold, we see him change and loose these cares.
This really comes to the fore in the second half of the film as Mr. Banks takes his children to ‘his’ bank and discovers that maybe saving money is not the be all and end all of life and, actually, something of worth can be found in the mischievous anarchy of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert and notions like feeding the birds.
For younger viewers the first half of the film is a more traditional Disney experience with dancing animals and an extended live action/animation hybrid sequence that, I imagine, would have been truly wonderful to behold as a child in the 1960s as it used, for the time, cutting edge technology that would have seemed an impossible feat to young eyes not used to CGI.
While this first half of the film is, at times, a bit on the baggy and undisciplined side and feels more like a series of episodes than a coherent story as I watch it as an adult, it does set the scene of Poppins’ philosophy very well. As the film reaches the crossover point into the direct story between Mr. Banks and his children, these episodes set up the dénouement very well, without being entirely obvious about it.
What brings these two sides together to make Mary Poppins a top rate family film are the performances and some of the songs. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke undeniably steal the whole show with Andrews’ voice and Van Dyke’s dancing being the real high points. The much maligned “cock-er-ney” accent is a little distracting at times but, let’s be honest, this never really feels like real London, so it is easily overlooked if you want it to be if you let yourself get lost in Disney’s world.
While he’s no Gene Kelly (who is?) Van Dyke does a great job in his solo dance moments keeping the character of Bert going while moving seamlessly, both interacting with animated penguins and real life dancers. The highlight of this is the Step In Time sequences as Bert’s band of chimney sweeps tap and leap across the rooftops of London, and the Banks’ house, and bring the films two worlds into an abrupt meeting.
While some of the songs feel a bit twee in comparison to more modern films, the Shermans’ best tunes still stand out and are another highlight. I’ll admit there are many more of them than I remembered, but the likes of Let’s Go Fly A Kite, Chim Chim Cher-ee and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious remain Disney classics and the hint of old English music hall amidst the Sherman’s own sound is what elevates them into being something different and so effective.
Disney’s Mary Poppins, more than 50 years after its original release, remains a solid classic of Disney’s golden age and, while some parts have dated, it retains something special in terms of both message and entertainment for anyone looking to spend a good couple of hours with a movie and is a truly quintessential family film that seems custom designed for a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV as much as a cinema.