As my series of movie musical reviews continues, this week’s selection comes from the fact that my girlfriend, at 25 years old, had never seen “Mary Poppins.” As essential viewing from my youth, I knew this had to be remedied immediately.
But then I realized I hadn’t actually watched the 1964 film myself in nearly 15 years. As an older and wiser me with years of film knowledge and worldly experience, I was worried the film wouldn’t hold up as so many favorites from childhood often don’t.
Thankfully, I’m happy to report that not only is “Mary Poppins” still one of the greatest family films and movie musicals ever made, but seeing it from the perspective of an adult makes it even more powerful, something the innocence of childhood just can’t see yet.
I’m of course talking about the meat of the film — the real reason Mary Poppins is there — to help this dysfunctional family come together. At a time when so many parents are out of work and home with their kids, seeing Mr. Banks realize flying a kite with his children is always more important than impressing his boss hit me hard.
Yes, the music is phenomenal, the magic and special effects are mesmerizing and Julie Andrews’s performance is captivating, but that core message of family and learning to love life again despite a generational gap is what will always keep this treasured classic timeless.
Set in turn-of-the-19th-20th century London, Jane and Michael, the children of the wealthy and uptight Banks family, have sent another fed-up nanny packing with their antics, much to the disappointment of their preoccupied parents (played by David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns).
Regretting dealing with another nanny in place of their mum and dad, Jane and Michael are pleasantly surprised by the arrival Mary Poppins (Andrews), a magical nanny with whom they embark on a series of fantastical adventures along with her Cockney jack-of-all-trades friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke), learning valuable life lessons about love and growing up.
As Walt Disney’s personal passion project for two decades, the love and attention in this production is evident right from the start. Plain and simple, it’s a beautiful movie. Yes, London is actually just sets and backlots in California, but they are so lovingly crafted and designed that the “staginess” of it works. I know the background is a giant painting, but I love looking at it.
This plays right into the charm that is the Disney brand as a whole. While the whole thing is artificial on the surface, the whimsy and magic of it transport you to a place where of course people can jump into a sidewalk chalk drawing or float up to the ceiling when laughing too hard.
Surprisingly, I think that’s why the movie holds up so well. Even if the special effects are dated, they were revolutionary at the time and still look great today. So when you’re caught up in the humor, the brilliant music and the wonderful craft on display, I’m not thinking about the trick wires and clever editing. I’m thinking about being a kid again, blown away by the magic.
For decades, critics and film historians have discussed the catchy and timeless songs by the Sherman brothers and the spot-on performances by Andrews, Tomlinson and Van Dyke — even if his horrible Cockney accent is a put-off at first — but it’s the adults’ narratives that grabbed my attention and opened my eyes with this watch.
You have Mr. Banks, more obsessed with his job and order in his house than any of the people in it. You have Mrs. Banks, off fighting for the vote with other suffragettes while also going along with whatever her husband tells her. You even have the bank officials wanting Michael’s tuppence to invest in colonialism instead of charity. And don’t even get me started on the classism discussion — why does a stay-at-home mom with a cook and a maid need a nanny?
I could go on about the mesmerizing choreography, the cleverness and emotional power of the music or the political and historical problems both on-screen and in the making of. But really, all that matters is “Mary Poppins” is a great film. It’s a family movie that makes you laugh, cry and tap your toes, something we could all use right about now.