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If every artist is allowed at least one crowning achievement, the one piece of work that perfectly epitomizes everything he or she stands for all at once, then Walt Disney's crowning achievement is Mary Poppins. Released in 1964, just two years before his death, the film is a masterpiece, stringing together everything that makes a Disney movie...well, a Disney movie. There's wonderful songs, great animation, witty humor, dark moments and the most important thing, a heart at the center of it all.
Mary Poppins is based on the books by P.L. Travers and tells the story of the Banks children – Jane and Michael – and their wondrous adventures with their new nanny, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews). Their father, George Banks (David Tomlinson), holds a prime position at a bank, while their mother Winifred (Glynis Johns) is an active suffragette. Both parents have little time for the children and expect a nanny to step into the role of mother. Unfortunately for the children, their latest is another woman they can't stand and she quits. Mary comes in and gets hired, somehow knowing what the children believe is the 'perfect nanny.' That sets the stage, and the audience is off on a “Jolly Holiday” for the next two hours.
The story is framed by Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a jack-of-all-trades and a friend of Mary's. He goes with Mary and the children on many of the adventures, and the two introduce them to unique characters like Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn). They even go into a painted world, where animals sing, penguins are waiters and merry-go-round horses fly.
Like Travers' stories and many of Disney's own work, Mary Poppins is not just about having fun. It's not didactic or stale, but Mary has things to teach the children and their parents. The children learn that a relationship with their parents is essential, as Mary knows when to step away. For the parents, they learn that they have to spend time with their children and rediscover the child that's still in them. Life is not just about making money or seeing a personal dream come true. It's about spending time with your loved ones and having fun doing it.
The strengths of Mary Poppins are countless, but let's take them piece by piece, starting with the acting. It is unbelievable that this is Julie Andrews' first film. Jack Warner decided that My Fair Lady was too big a project to let an unknown Broadway star take the lead role, so he gave it to the non-singing Audrey Hepburn. Oh well, his loss. That let Disney cast Andrews as Mary Poppins, giving what must be the best film debut for an actress ever. She looks far more comfortable in front of the camera and singing than a rookie should be. Perhaps that's due to Robert Stevenson's direction, but also part of Disney's knack for making everyone feel like a member of a filmmaking family.
Dick Van Dyke may be doing a terrible Cockney accent, but you can't forget his charming performance as Bert. The performance is so effortless that you might think that the bad accent is all part of it. David Tomlinson, who would become a Disney regular after this, Glynis John, Ed Wynn and many others fill out the stunning supporting cast. It's a shame that among the film's 13 Oscar nominations, none are for performances aside from Andrews. You watch this movie to see Tomlinson's smile at the end.
And then there's the music of brothers Richard B. and Robert M. Sherman. This is the type of perfection that I think we've taken for granted. We've grown up with “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let's Go Fly A Kite,” “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “I Love To Laugh.” Of course, while some of the more fun songs are the ones we remember, I've always had a soft spot for “Tuppence A Bag.” After all, it's the theme that opens the film and quite possibly the most heartbreaking sequence in a Disney film (although, it'll have a tough time topping the death of Bambi's mother).
Mary Poppins isn't “practically perfect in ever way,” the film is perfect in every way. Yes, My Fair Lady, which won Best Picture of 1964, is a more classical musical and is still a great movie, but Mary Poppins remains fresh for its inventiveness and Disney's ambition to create something that would never age. And it hasn't. There's just something about about a story with no villain, no danger and only people we want to spend time with that makes revisiting this movie time and again enjoyable. If, when the film is over, you want to go fly a kite, then it succeeds and it does every time.
On Home Video: Disney finally released Mary Poppins on Blu-ray this week, just ahead of its 50th anniversary next year. There is only one new bonus feature, a short discussion between Richard B. Sherman and Jason Schwartzman, who plays him in Saving Mr. Banks. All of the video features from the previous DVDs were carried over, but Disney didn't bring over any of the art and photo galleries. Still, it is a great release thanks to the restoration of the film. Hopefully, Disney starts releasing more live-action classics from its library on Blu-ray.