'Mary Poppins' Is Practically Perfect, but Not Quite

The gender politics in Mary Poppins are regressive, surely, but they’re also a product of their time and can easily fly under the radar, especially for young viewers.

Mary Poppins

Director: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Glynis Johns, David Tomlinson
Distributor: Disney
Release date: 2013-12-10

Recently I watched Mary Poppins for the first time in over two decades. It was a childhood favorite, not only because I longed for a fantastical four-octave-ready angelic nanny to descend from Heaven and rescue me from boredom/family dysfunction, but because the film, ingenuously directed by Robert Stevenson (who would go on to become Disney's go-to director for live action animation with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, among other films), created something epic and magical that I’d never seen before. Combining singing, dancing, and an exciting mix of live action and animation, Mary Poppins’ world-building is on par with, and frankly better than, most of the impersonal contemporary CGI extravaganzas we see today.

Looking back, it’s easy to see what draws a child to the film: there are big, bright colors and lavish set pieces; a fresh-faced British woman singing her ass off and being sassy (this was Julie Andrews’s film debut!); memorable songs featuring silly new words; and Dick Van Dyke hamming it up here and there for ample measure. But the best children’s films also appeal to adults, too -- not only as nostalgia pieces (doesn’t everyone want to be a kid again?), but as an example of the timelessness and universality of good cinema.

Watching the film as an adult yielded a different experience, yet still incredibly enjoyable, but there’s a lot more going on beneath that sugary surface that keeps it from being practically perfect in every way. For example, who/what is Mary Poppins? She’s no mere nanny -- she's a stopgap measure facilitating familial unity in the form of the ideal woman, clearly contrasted with Glynis Johns’s aloof suffragette matriarch Mrs. Banks, a woman so wrapped up in women’s rights that she’s an awful parent.

The film, saccharinely adapted from P.L Travers’s popular series, first shows Mrs. Banks swooping into the Cherry Lane home (presumably from a meeting) and sweeping the staff into a rousing rendition of “Sister Suffragette”. Johns is delightful in the role, but after her character’s introduction, she has little to do other than pass along her children to nannies and complete strangers (Van Dyke’s chimney sweep), all the while crusading for equal rights for women. There’s a feminist mother who is a bad parent, then there’s a stay-at-home surrogate who’s just right. The subtext is not very sub, is it?

Poppins doesn't show up until nearly half an hour in, at which point the stage has been sufficiently set for her takeover. Let’s not forget that this is a fairytale, and as in most fairytales, some suspension of disbelief goes a long way. The magical elements may come via a fantasy gender construct, but watching them is as much fun now as it must have been nearly half a century ago when the film premiered.

Old fashioned visual trickery is at its most imaginative here, as when Mary Poppins slides up a banister, sings with a mechanical bird (for continuity nerds, an American Robin incongruously located in London), or during the sequence when she pulls nearly everything but the kitchen sink from her travel bag; good effects are timeless. When she, Van Dyke’s Bert, and children Jane and Michael jump into a chalk painting to enter a universe of talking animals and horse races, it’s hard not to be transported back to childish delight.

About that sequence, though. It goes on for way longer than it should, dragging the film’s pace where it once bristled with whimsy. It becomes clear at this point that the film is mostly just a series of scenes strung together to showcase various song and dance numbers rather than to further the plot.

Musicals, by objective, narrativize songs in lieu of traditional dialogue. That’s not always what happens here, which is perhaps a concession made for the youthful target audience. Sometimes this works, such as the nearly nine-minute "Step In Time" rooftop hoedown, a true highlight. Other times it’s more of a pacing hindrance, most apparent with Mr. Banks’s “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” number that comes right after the film’s bittersweet highlight, “Feed the Birds”. A little goes a long way to characterize the parents as deficient, so that when Mary Poppins finally leaves and the family is a more proper union, all is not lost.

It’s impossible to discount the film’s legacy, which is primarily a result of Andrews’s irresistible charisma and vocal prowess and her chemistry with Van Dyke. They make a great team, particularly as a pair of fun-loving yet responsible adults in whom children can both identify and respect. As a whole, the gender politics in Mary Poppins are regressive, surely, but they’re also a product of their time and can easily fly under the radar, especially for young viewers.

The biggest drawback has little to do with the film or its repackaging, but with its insufferable tie-ins with the upcoming studio selfie Saving Mr. Banks, an advertisement for which precedes the title menu. Likewise, one of the new “special features” is an interview on the film’s music that features Robert Sherman, the original composer of all those classic songs, and actor Jason Schwartzman, who portrays him in Banks.

Other features include "Mary-oke", a karaoke that’s lovely for children, “Chimpanzoo”, a song that didn’t make the final cut, and a recently recorded interview between Sherman, Andrews, and Van Dyke, all spry and having a jolly old time reminiscing about the production of the film. This is clearly the highlight of the bunch.

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