Janus Film Review Presents: Mary Poppins (1964)

Updated: Mar 10, 2020

as reviewed by Tom

Format Reviewed: DVD/Walt Disney Pictures (2004).

It is my stated conviction that David Tomlinson should have won every award going for his portrayal of George Banks in Mary Poppins. You see, Mary Poppins isn't really about a magical nanny coming down from the clouds to look after two children and go on jolly holidays with a cheerful Cockney jack-of-all-trades with a confused accent in Edwardian London. As 2013’s rather wonderful Saving Mr. Banks suggests, the real story is that of the personal journey of the children's father, Mr. Banks, a conservative bank director obsessed with ‘tradition, discipline and rules’, who cannot fathom why everyone is so ‘confoundedly cheerful’ and spending their time on ‘worthless frivolity’ since the arrival of the children’s new nanny, Mary Poppins. Banks is a man who just wants to do the right thing, with British stiff-upper-lip and decorum, but has ended up neglecting his children and losing his spontaneity and joy in the process. Mary’s priority is not really being the children’s nanny, it is to bring Banks and his children closer. Then the wind changes, and Mary watches Banks and his children skipping off to fly a kite. Mission accomplished. Tomlinson, who was surely a very underrated character actor, plays the most authentic character in the film, with just the right amount of warm-hearted pathos, particularly when he is on the receiving end of what can only be described as a ‘cashiering’ from his bank colleagues after his son Michael causes a run on the bank. It is these subtle moments that make Mary Poppins the film it is for me, and Tomlinson adds a very human heart to a surreal and wonderful, crowd-pleasing confection.

Julie Andrews takes to the title role so gracefully, elegantly and confidently, one can easily forget it was her debut screen performance, having previously originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady on Broadway, and been passed over for the lead role in its film adaptation the same year. What could have potentially been a cloying character in the wrong hands is anything but. The character is notably softer than her literary counterpart, yet Andrews does a fine line in stern disapproval, almost begrudgingly allowing their fantastical adventures to go ahead despite her better judgement. She challenges Mr. Banks’ authority, gently putting him in his place when his overinflated sense of propriety gets the better of him. Dick Van Dyke exudes endless energy as everyman Bert, from his first appearance as a one-man band entertaining the crowds, to the show-stopping ‘Step in Time’ dance sequence on the rooftops of (a very studio-bound) London. Van Dyke recently divulged that he was so keen to play a second part in the film (that of Mr. Dawes Sr., the chairman of the bank) that he paid Walt Disney for the privilege. Both roles exhibit what a versatile performer Van Dyke was in his prime, with impeccable comic timing and winning charm. In other words, perfect for a film like Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins had a rather tortuous journey from the charming children's novel by P.L. Travers to big budget Disney family musical. Walt Disney personally courted (for want of a better word) the notoriously prickly Pamela Travers regularly for the rights to the story for over 25 years. Eventually, Travers agreed, maintaining final script approval and a ‘consultant’ credit on the finished film, although reportedly remaining displeased with the addition of songs and animation. In film-making terms, despite the original author’s misgivings, Mary Poppins is a perfect storm of Disney stalwarts at the peak of their powers, from director Robert Stevenson’s steady hand steering the ship, to Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi’s joyful screenplay interspersed with the classic songs of Richard and Robert Sherman, each one more-or-less having become a standard in its own right. The hybrid live-action and animated sequences are still an enchanting feat of imagination over 50 years later, and the most ambitious Disney had been with the technique up to that point. The merry-go-round horse racing scene may do little to advance the plot, but it is certainly an effective showcase for the technical prowess on display. Indeed, it is such a beloved sequence that, judging by the trailer, similar scenes will appear in the upcoming sequel, Mary Poppins Returns.

1964 had many standout films which have now gone on to become cast-iron classics. Mary Poppins is undoubtedly one such example. It is still one of Disney’s finest achievements. As the release of its belated follow-up approaches (54 years after the original - a record for a sequel), one does wonder if there is any point in trying to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time. There is always an inherent danger in trying to re-conjure the magic charms of a beloved and celebrated classic, much like an old rock band reuniting for one last tour aiming to reclaim past glories. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Early reports suggest Mary Poppins Returns gets it right. The original Mary Poppins is such a unique creation, I certainly hope so.

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