Janus Film Review Presents: Mary Poppins (1964)

as reviewed by Dan

Format Reviewed: Digital/Walt Disney Productions.

Mary Poppins is a magical motion picture. It is endlessly charming, utterly iconic and oh god, I’m bored already. There are certain films that enjoy an untouchable status. You do not watch them so much as be anointed by their obvious majesty, and there is nothing new to discuss or learn, because they already represent perfect examples of the form. To those who think this way, criticising Mary Poppins is likely akin to taking Mickey Mouse’s sainted mother, putting her across your knee and administering a spanking. You’re not supposed to question the merits of perfection. However, in this writer’s opinion, no film is immune from criticism, nor should its status as a ‘childhood favourite’ or ‘beloved classic’ insulate it from the truth of its failings. The vast majority of critics line up to worship at the altar of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-ness, before unavoidably lambasting Dick Van Dyke’s appalling attempt at sounding like a cockney spiv, and then calling the whole thing a job well done. In terms of seeing beyond the hype, such works are far from penetrating analyses, and frankly rather unhelpful.

I wish to clarify that I do not consider Mary Poppins to be a bad film. It is one of the more memorable screen musicals and is undoubtedly likeable, even if it is absurdly contrived. It is a charming spectacle at any age but especially for children, which is utterly consistent with the film’s ultimate agenda. Mary Poppins features no location shots, so production designer Tony Walton does a fine job of synthesising the Edwardian aura of the source material, with little more than matrimonial enthusiasm and some expensive sets. The film’s blending of live-action and animation was innovative for the era, and remains both endearing and impressive to this day. Most of all, Mary Poppins stands as a showcase for the beauty, vocal talent and enduring charisma of Julie Andrews. She positively shines in the eponymous role, and her formal arrival - as she descends from the clouds via umbrella, as the ordinary folk look on agog - remains the quintessential introduction for a more-than-slightly-magical character. Her performance is the everlasting embodiment of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins.

The story of Mary Poppins’ journey from book to screen is notorious. The character was the creation of author Pamela ‘P.L.’ Travers, and for many years Walt Disney had given chase, in the hopes of convincing a reluctant Travers to hand over film rights to the Poppins mythos. He was - in the end - successful, and ended up fulfilling his longstanding ambition of creating the ‘ultimate family film’. In the process, Disney showcased all the fine qualities of the company very much crafted in his image: ambition, greed, duplicity and the stated conviction that the ends justify the means. Walt Disney lied through his teeth to Travers, outmanoeuvring her contractual safeguards, betraying her confidence and disregarding her concerns (be they tonal or artistic) as he recreated the eccentric nanny in his own image. He took Mary Poppins by the hand and removed any hint of subtlety or conflict. This was all achieved by the standard Disney tactic of pouring vast amounts of sugar, glitter and general saccharine goodness all over proceedings until the gagging point was reached, and then adding a spoonful more. The end result is the so-called definitive expression of a family film, which is nonetheless an unapologetic corruption of the author’s original intent.

Just shy of fifty years later and with Travers long dead, the modern Disney company sought to immortalise their dear leader’s brave quest to overcome an earnest writer’s recalcitrance, with the release of Saving Mr. Banks (2013). The film is a perfectly decent work of fiction, starring an always engaging Tom Hanks and a passionate Emma Thompson. To those unacquainted with the true story, watching the film engenders the distinct impression that Travers saw the error of her ways, and came to embrace the silver screen Mary Poppins. This is patently untrue: she initially despised the film and was wounded by Disney’s disregard for her feelings. The only worthwhile nugget of accuracy within Saving Mr. Banks is the revelation that Travers had to shame Disney into inviting her to the film’s premiere. The film would have you believe that Walt Disney - one of the most ruthless businessmen in the history of the Hollywood cesspool - was too scared and embarrassed to issue an invitation, lest she disapprove. The truth is he already knew she was desperately concerned, but he didn’t care because with the film in the can, she was surplus to requirements. He’d got his precious classic, alongside all the associated gongs. To paraphrase Disney himself: ‘the ship (full of money) had sailed’.

Saving Mr. Banks, though entertaining in its own right, is a classic example of historical whitewashing. In the Disney universe the endings are always happy, so the ugly boil of Mary Poppins’ true origins needed lancing. Such seismic levels of bullshit, once unearthed, possess the capacity to destroy, and so it is with Saving Mr. Banks and the film whose legacy it exists to perpetuate. It is a moral canker, and even if you choose to accept that Disney was correct in his assessment of the film’s required tone - and its probable legacy - I find such cynicism repellent. Seven years later, Warner Brothers would subject Roald Dahl’s Charlie & the Chocolate Factory to the same treatment, ripping the darkly humorous core out of the story in favour of doubled-down, kid-friendly accessibility. The difference in this instance was the quality of the source material, which far outstrips Mary Poppins in terms of entertainment value and pure imagination. In terms of sentimentality, the film managed to at least partially restrain itself. What’s more, just as Mary Poppins features Julie Andrews, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory possessed its own icon in the shape of the late, great Gene Wilder. He imbues his version of the titular character with at least some of Dahl’s darkness, and his own sardonic wit. So as sodomised literary adaptations go, this one is tender as opposed to total.

Truthfully, what can I really say about Mary Poppins? Nobody cares. It sits atop a gilded perch, safe in the knowledge that nothing can alter the party line. It is a film that has attained ‘timeless classic’ status. Such entities are destined to survive shifts in popular consensus or extinction-level events, just like the cockroach or Peter Mandelson. It must be conceded that many people continue to love the film because it’s a fine example of the cinematic musical, featuring the legitimately timeless songs of Richard and Robert Sherman. Alas, we as a species love getting swept up in the presumption of greatness, so we stop asking questions, and details such as the film’s surprising dullness, and its sanctimonious story, fade into irrelevancy. There are countless examples of more challenging, imaginative, intelligent or just plain interesting stories than Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, and it is easily one of the least engaging classic-era Disney films. I don’t hate the film - far from it - I simply can’t drink from the cup of its apparent greatness. It doesn’t move me, and though the fault for this might very well be mine, I cannot deny the truth. Besides, Julie Andrews was even better the following year.

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