It’s said that there are only two stories: “Someone goes on a journey” or “A stranger comes to town”. Star Wars is “someone goes on a journey”. So is The Maltese Falcon, and 8 ½, and Thelma and Louise. On the other hand, Casablanca is “a stranger comes to town”. So is All About Eve, and E.T. The Extraterrestrial and Fight Club. That last film, a favorite among frustrated young people, is a fantasy of release from stifling circumstance via the intervention of an unpredictable and superhuman visitor whose mere presence destroys the status quo in an orgy of divine chaos . . . oh, wait, did I say Fight Club? I meant Mary Poppins.
Walt Disney’s 1964 film adaptation of P.L. Travers’s children’s book series is considerably sweetened from the original source, just as Travers’s tarter, vainer, more indifferent Mary Poppins is far removed from the gore, cynicism, and black humor of Chuck Palahniuk’s entirely un-Disneyesque novel (or of David Fincher’s movie, for that matter). But this family classic still contains a heart as anarchic, and an antihero(ine) as unbound by convention as Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). It is obvious to any child (or adult) who can look past the musical numbers to the rebellion within. In this case, a spoonful of the Disney sugar really does help the revolution go down.
Jane and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) are deeply unhappy children. Their Edwardian home is run like a prison camp, presided over by their self-important capitalist father, the perfectly named Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson). He, in turn, lords over their distracted suffragette mother (Glynis Johns), as well as the squabbling Gestapo of the family’s cook and maid (Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw). The children have torn through a succession of nannies who are unable to cope with their petty disobediences. They wait in seeming vain for an adult who understands them. They even spell out their demands in a letter that their unimpressed father tears to bits and tosses in the fireplace.
Likewise, the nameless narrator of Fight Club (usually referred to as “Jack”, played by Edward Norton) is trapped by his meaningless job, self-medicating his existential torpor with room furnishings and support groups, until his ennui reaches critical mass. Both discontents wish, explicitly and not, for a rescuer part ally, part catalyst who can jolt them out of their unhappy circumstances.
The next morning, the black-cloaked prospective nannies line up outside the Banks’s home like a squadron of vultures, queuing to interview for the position advertised in the paper. Jane and Michael’s hearts sink at the sight of the harpies outside, when suddenly a wind picks up. The crones are blown away like so many black garbage bags, leaving only the serene Mary Poppins to float into view (carried aloft by her famous parrot-headed umbrella), alighting softly on the Banks’s now vacant front step.
It’s not unlike Tyler Durden’s first appearance. The ding of an airline intercom interrupts Jack from his fantasy of a hull breach his helpless seat mates, some still belted to their airline seats, carried away in the same ripping, gusting motions as Mary Poppins’s rivals only to find Durden seated next to him. Mumbling aloud the instructions on the airline safety card, Tyler is a dream nanny ready to take the stunted narrator under his care.
Mary Poppins’s first order of business is to clean up the nursery. By magically snapping her fingers, tin soldiers march in formation back into the toy box, hats fly back to their hat rack roosts, and beds make themselves. Tyler’s first order of business is also to clean up Jack’s “nursery” a cookie-cutter condo, with its Swedish furniture and “fridge full of condiments”, a yuppie Habitrail that symbolizes his arrested development with a technique that’s more violent but just as magical. He just blows it up, sending the splintered artifacts of Jack’s stunted life onto the street, thus forcing Jack to start anew. Even Mary’s room cleaning slips out of her control as newly liberated inanimate objects assume disobedient lives of their own. As Tyler would say, a little chaos is good for you. “”We’d better keep an eye on this one she’s tricky.” says Michael to his sister. Jane is delighted with this new nanny. “She’s wonderful!”
Very soon, the children discover just how delightful outings with Mary Poppins can be when they meet her pal, Bert the chimney sweep, and pop into his sidewalk chalk drawings. There, they are transported to a tea parlor where a thrilled wait staff of tuxedoed penguins (remember, they’re a “power animal”) assure them “Order what you will / There’ll be no bill / It’s complementary”. It’s like in Club, when an obsequious diner waiter assures Jack “Sir! Anything you order is free of charge, sir.” (I hope the tea and raspberry ice Mary orders is “clean food.”)
Later, Mary, Bert, and the children ride the merry-go-round, until Jane complains that merry-go-rounds are fun but don’t go anywhere. All it takes is a word from Mary and the horses have leapt the carousel’s platform, free to go wherever they please just as Tyler’s influence has allowed Jack to make the improbable leap from his go-nowhere job to a life of dark activism. (Beating yourself up and blackmailing your boss is a gorier solution, but it gets the job done.) And, once they arrive home, Mary insists they take a spoonful of restorative syrup. “No, I won’t take your nasty medicine!” Michael protests. At least it’s better than having the back of your hand burnt with lye.
“Oh, we had such a lovely day, Mary Poppins! Popping in and out of pictures, riding the merry-go-round, winning the horse race!” “Is that so?” the nanny indulgently replies, feigning complete ignorance. Why would Mary deny events that she orchestrated? Because she knows what Tyler knows: that in order to keep your power, your subversive activity must remain a lovely secret. Whether winning a steeplechase astride a carousel pony or stealing fat out of dumpsters at the liposuction clinic, or whether your black-suited allies scramble across rooftops to sow discord or to “Step In Time”, bragging and sharing (at least in the beginning) dissipates the power that will eventually propel you to revolutionary change.
Even without spilling the beans, Mary’s presence affects every member of the household. The Banks’s cook and maid no longer infight, but gladly assist each other with their duties, just as the nighttime members of Fight Club become the daytime co-workers who briefly nod in secret recognition. And just to further irritate (and frighten) Mr. Banks, it’s all accompanied by choruses of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. (Could you imagine the domestic help huddling in the pantry, chanting “His name is Robert Paulson”?) Mr. Banks demands an end to all this singing but it’s too late. As Tyler puts it, “He’s just polishing the brass on the Titanic.”
When Mr. Banks confronts Mary about her “questionable outings” (unusual, but certainly not as questionable as the outings of Project Mayhem) Mary couldn’t agree more, and before her employer can protest, she declares the children will be at his side in the morning, accompanying him to the bank. But she’s not given up. Before she puts the children to bed, she tells them about the little old bird woman selling crumbs for “tuppence a bag”. She wants their eyes to be primed to see her and not the false might of their father’s financial institution. In the words of Mary’s lullaby you can hear Tyler’s message:
Though the world is fast asleep
Though your pillow’s soft and deep
You’re not sleepy as you seem
Stay awake, don’t nod and dream
Stay awake, don’t nod and dream
And sure enough, once they arrive and meet the withered bank president, seeing first-hand how a life of materialism corrodes body and soul, Jane and Michael refuse to relinquish their precious tuppence for something as cold as investing. Their screams of protest are heard on the bank floor, triggering panic, chaos, and bankruptcy. Project Mayhem, with all their homemade human fat nitroglycerine strapped to the load-bearing beams of credit card company headquarters, should be so efficiently lethal to a financial institution. Mary’s destroyed a major moneylender just by singing a lullaby.
All ends happily in Poppins: Mr. Banks discovers the joy in Mary’s antiestablishment philosophy and vows to put his children first, proving that she’s succeeded in removing the institutional paralysis of those around her. Even the bank presidents (!) are flying kites at the park at the film’s conclusion. Her mission complete, Mary Poppins can confidently return to her home in the clouds. But imagine that, like Tyler, Mary was a delusional construct, an invention of two imaginative, thwarted children who fabricated a fantastic character to take the blame for their destructive and vengeful behavior? That’s as improbable in a Disney film as having single frames of porn spliced into one of Mary Poppins‘s reels. But then again, if Tyler’s in the projection booth . . . don’t blink.