Mary Poppins (1964)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #58

It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G (1972)

Original Release: 27th August 1964 (USA)
UK Release: 23rd December 1964
First Seen: by osmosis in childhood.

Stars
Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music, Torn Curtain)
Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
David Tomlinson (The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)
Karen Dotrice (The Gnome-Mobile, The Thirty-Nine Steps)

Director
Robert Stevenson (Jane Eyre, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)

Screenwriter
Bill Walsh (The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)
Don DaGradi (Blackbeard’s Ghost, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)

Based on
the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers.

Music and Lyrics
Richard M. Sherman (The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
Robert B. Sherman (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh)

The Story
Not impressed by the nannies selected by their domineering father, Jane and Michael Banks write a letter describing their ideal applicant. Conversely, Mr Banks is not impressed with their requirements, and tears up the letter and throws it in the fire… from whence it reaches Mary Poppins, who floats down to bring fun and discipline to all of the Banks household.

Our Hero
The magical nanny who comes from the sky, Mary Poppins can be (whisper it) actually a little bit annoying at times. Julie Andrews, on the other hand, is practically perfect in every way.

Our Villains
Ultimately, bankers. Some things never change.

Best Supporting Character
Ostensibly this is the story of children Jane and Michael Banks and their need for a SuperNanny to help them with their oh-so-terrible father — and, as a child, that’s where your focus lies. Really (and I guess you need to grow up at least a bit to see this), it’s about how said SuperNanny saves their father, Mr Banks, helping to transform him from a miserable corporate drone into a joyful family man. David Tomlinson negotiates this arc fantastically.

Memorable Quote
“You know, you can say it backwards, which is ‘docious-ali-expi-istic-fragil-cali-rupus’… but that’s going a bit too far, don’t you think?” — Mary Poppins

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” — Mary Poppins

Memorable Scene
Chimneysweeps dancing on the rooftops! (Fun fact: I always thought Step In Time was called Stepping Time. I mean, the dance does contain a lot of, sort of, steps…)

Best Song as a Child
Iiiiiiit’s Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious. If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious. (Sacrilege maybe, but the version from the 2004 stage musical is even better.)

Best Song as an Adult
When I was little, the whole part of the film around the bank, Feed the Birds, etc, was The Boring Bit between the fun and the return of the fun. Now, I still think most of Feed the Birds is a little insipid, but the instrumental reprise as Mr Banks walks slowly back to the bank, his world and everything he knows torn asunder, his humiliation imminent… It’s heartbreaking, and the music is most of the reason why.

Technical Wizardry
The sequence where Mary, the children, and Bert jump into one of the latter’s street paintings — all of it animated, with the exception of the leads — is a sterling extended example of combining live-action with cel animation.

Truly Special Effect
As a lad, I could never work out how exactly they’d managed to create Mary’s bottomless bag. I haven’t watched the film for a while and imagine it’s painfully obvious now… I also used to think the little bird that lands on her hand was a miraculous effect and didn’t understand why some people slagged it off, but then I watched that bit on YouTube a couple of years ago and finally saw what everyone else saw. Oh, the sadness of ageing…

Letting the Side Down
The fact that real cockneys don’t sound like Dick Van Dyke. No, I don’t mean it the other way round — the fact that the real-life denizens of East London sound nothing like Bert is the problem here, not Bert’s accent. That is how I think cockneys should sound, and it always will be.

Making of
See: Saving Mr. Banks. Knowing biopics it’s probably not 100% accurate, but it is a good film.

Next time…
Despite several attempts, a sequel never happened. The director and/or writers worked together on multiple films at Disney over the next few years — most famously, an early-’70s blatant attempt to recreate the Poppins magic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Mary Poppins herself returned in 2004 in a Cameron Mackintosh-produced West End musical, based on the film but re-incorporating more from the books. Talk of it being adapted into a film seem to have come to nowt. Instead, a (very) belated sequel with Emily Blunt in the title role is due in 2018.

Awards
5 Oscars (Actress (Julie Andrews), Song (Chim Chim Cher-ee), Substantially Original Score, Editing, Visual Effects)
8 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color Costume Design, Sound, Scoring of Music Adaptation or Treatment)
1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Julie Andrews))

What the Critics Said
“Of course, it is sentimental. And, as Mary Poppins says, “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their feelings.” But being not practically perfect, I find it irresistible. Plenty of other adults will feel the same way. And, needless to say, so will the kids.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“It is the single glowing moment of sheer unmixed genius in the long stretch of lightweight successes and dreary failures that made up nearly three whole decades of Disney’s output in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s; a fantasy of the most delicate touch and charming disposition, sweet and precious while being neither sickening nor cloying.” — Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy

Verdict

I feel like Mary Poppins is the kind of movie that it would’ve been easy to overlook in putting together this list of favourites — a childhood favourite, that’s maybe so obvious you kind of forget about it as A Movie — which is one of the reasons I made sure to get it on here. Another is how well it works for both children and adults. As the former, the magical adventures and toe-tapping songs are pure joy, a wonder-filled experience that doesn’t date. As the latter, those elements are still entertaining, but the depth of some of the film’s messages (especially pertaining to the adults) really comes through. It’s a film for all ages, and one for the ages too.

#59 will be…

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

2014 #84
John Lee Hancock | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG-13

Saving Mr. BanksTom Hanks is Walt Disney and Emma Thompson is author P.L. Travers in “The Making of Mary Poppins: The Movie”. Disney has been desperate to turn Travers’ fictional nanny into a movie for years after he made a promise to his daughter; Travers has resisted, but now needs the money. She’s brought to LA to consult on the script, and proceeds to make life miserable for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songsmiths Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). At the same time, we see the story of a family in Australia from the eyes of a little girl Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), as they struggle with the whims of her father (Colin Farrell), a bank manager who’s a little too fond of the bottle. Guess what the connection is!

There’s fun to be had seeing the creation of a classic movie — I’m sure it’s not 100% the honest truth of how it went, but it is based on the tapes Travers insisted were made of the meetings, so it would seem the spirit is faithful. This isn’t a dry “making of” narrative, however, but a lively romp, as the two sides clash over jaunty tunes, characterisation, casting, and made-up words. Whitford brings understated gravitas to the man essentially tasked with giving Travers what she wants while also making a suitably Disney movie. Paul Giamatti turns up as Travers’ LA chauffeur, a role that starts out as bafflingly insignificant before gradually unfurling as one of the film’s most affecting elements.

Hanks not a lotSimilarly, Hanks’ part seems to be little more than a cameo at first, but he steadily appears often enough to make it a supporting role. Reportedly he has perfectly captured many of Disney’s real traits and idiosyncrasies, and who are we to doubt the word of people who knew the man? His performance is not just a shallow, simple impersonation, but there’s not that much meat to Disney’s character arc either.

Instead, the film completely belongs to Emma Thompson. Travers is a complicated woman, a veneer of strictness masking deeper issues. Beneath the comedy of who will win in the battle over the film, there’s an affecting personal drama about the troubled upbringing that led to this human being, and how she’s still dealing with it so many decades later. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay holds back from being too explicit with regards to Travers’ internal life, but it’s all vividly brought to the screen by Thompson.

In the Australian segments, Colin Farrell’s accent has to be heard to be believed — his regular voice is completely lost inside the character. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the storyline, though it is fundamentally predictable and the intrusions are sometimes unwelcome, interrupting the flow of the main ’60s narrative. Would that story function without them? Is there a better way to structure the telling? I don’t think the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, but I don’t think it’s a “no” either.

Picky PamelaSome will find the story lacking in dirt, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Disney. But it’s not whitewashed either, and do you really think the Disney Corporation would have allowed a movie to go ahead that depicts their founding father in a negative light? For that, I don’t think it’s as twee as it could have been — there’s definite conflict over what’s being done with Poppins, and, even with the film having turned out to be a solid-gold classic, we often find ourselves sympathising with Travers.

With plenty of humour and fun, a solid emotional heart, a first-rate performance from Thompson, and an array of excellent supporting turns too, Saving Mr. Banks is both a worthy tribute to a classic movie and an enjoyable one in its own right.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.