By Thomas Griffiths
Walt Disney, in his lifetime, only saw a handful of the movies that his legendary entertainment studio created. However, it seems quite fitting that Mr. Disney was alive to see the creation and release of one of the greatest movies in Disney history:
Mary Poppins is directed by Robert Stevenson and stars Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber. It is a film about a sophisticated but dysfunctional family that lives in 1910s London, where a request from their two adorable children attracts a mysterious nanny to their doorstep. This film is one of the oldest Disney movies to date, but it is, in my opinion, one of the films that holds out the best – even today, over fifty years after it was released, it is still a 60s cult classic film which everyone loves and enjoys.
The film opens with this very great scene in the middle of a park, with Bert (Played by Dick Van Dyke) is playing a one-man band in front of a crowd full of people. First thing, Dick Van Dyke is fantastic in this movie. Not only is he hilarious, which he has a notoriety for being, but he is also an incredible screen presence. He is so warming, so likeable, from the very first few second’s he’s on the screen. I actually think that this is the best work that Dick Van Dyke has ever done, period. The second great thing that he does is break the fourth wall in some way, near the end of this scene where he actually seems to talk to the audience and lead us over to Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, where we are introduced to the Banks family.
The entire introduction to the Banks family is excellent: From the nanny who leaves because the children she’s looking after are uncontrollable, to the two maids arguing in their first scene, to the hilarious introduction to Mrs. Banks (Played by Glynis Johns), which leads to the film’s first proper song ‘Sister Suffragette’, which is another win for this movie for historical references. Then, of course, we get the introduction to Mr. George Banks himself. David Tomlinson gives one of the winning performances in this movie, even in comparison to Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews, who I will talk about later in this review. He isn’t extraordinary in any way, he’s a completely normal guy. And he’s moulded completely by his situation, where he works at the Bank of London. He could easily become the villain of this movie, but he is just too sympathetic a character for that and even the adults, especially the working men and women in the family, would understand his situation.
I don’t know much else that David Tomlinson has done, so even now I’m shocked to see how good a singer this guy was. His ‘Life I Lead’ song when he enters the house is both enjoyable and tells you so much about his character, how orderly his life is and how he is simply trying to enjoy life when he can, as opposed to Bert who is simply trying to enjoy life, period. When we get introduced to his children, played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, this entire scene looks like an ordinary story about an ordinary family, with an optimistic wife, a workaholic husband and two children who are caught between the two and just want everyone to be happy. I think that both Dotrice and Garber gave excellent performances in this film, even though they are surrounded by stars of their time.
When we are finally introduced to Mary Poppins, who despite being the title character is the last of the main cast to be introduced, the entire sequence is extraordinary. The children write their own advertisement for another nanny, to make up for driving off the previous one, and he rips it up and throws it in the fireplace – however, another nanny shows up, flying in on an umbrella during a vicious storm and presents herself to George Banks with the advertisement that the children wrote, which has been perfectly repaired, and voices that she has all of the qualifications asked for by the children. Julie Andrews, in this scene and in the entire movie, gives such a subtle but still incredibly brilliant performance that she seems like such a normal person, when she could easily be a crazy person or an evil witch or something like that, but the way Andrews played her made her seem like such a brilliant character.
The entire sequence where Mary Poppins meets the children and runs them through her rules and her methods, and when she clears up the nursery, is freaking brilliant. ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ is an amazing song that will never get enough credit, and there’s so much that happens that both hints and transcends that Mary Poppins is a magical person or a normal person, and the reactions of the children to the incredible things that she does is spot-on. This moves on to the return to Bert’s character, and this time he’s a street artist, chalking scenery on tiles in the park – this could have come off the wrong way, but the only reason it doesn’t because, in this film, it works. Bert’s character is as unpredictable as Mary Poppins, but in a way that when something happens, you just accept it and even enjoy it. I enjoyed this part because it brings together Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
These two actors are brilliant together, even though they are antithetical – she is serious, serene and practical, and he’s happy-go-lucky, energetic and cool. However, their chemistry piques when they and the children actually leap into one of the drawings, which progresses into the introduction to one of the most amazing set-pieces and environments in this entire movie. The entire countryside setting is immaculately-designed and beautiful in so many ways, and is one of the most enticing parts of the story for most people. Of course, the group actually ride carousel-horses into an actual horse-race and fox-hunt, which leads to the hilarious world-famous number ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, which is hugely enjoyable no matter what age you are.
That’s what incredible about this movie – there are so many themes that wouldn’t work together in another movie, that it seems like you’re able to enjoy the movie no matter what age or mood you are in, and this is all done despite the fact that this film could look a bit dated when you compare it to films found today. However, in my opinion, this film doesn’t look at all dated. The characters seem both simple, but realistic and compelling, even the ones who are only on for a couple of minutes – like Admiral Boom, played by the late Reginald Owen. That’s the reason that this film is one of the definitive Disney films, because every theme and style that is explored or introduced works flawlessly and anybody can enjoy it.
The next scene that comes to mind is the scene the next morning, after the day out in the park, when every single person in the Banks household is happy and playful and optimistic…except for Mr. Banks. In this scene, it appears to take the point-of-view of Mr. Banks, who has woken up to a house where everyone’s loud, energetic and happy, when the world he’s used to his a serious, down-to-earth one, and he reacts negatively to every optimistic element that comes his way – again, David Tomlinson was a perfect choice for Mr. Banks. The scene where the Banks children, Bert, Mary Poppins and Uncle Albert have a tea party on the ceiling is extremely entertaining, and brings an even more magical element to the movie. What follows is the scene where Mary Poppins has another confrontation with Mr. Banks, where she appears to agree with him on the premise that the children should be moulded into his image of perfection, and then she proposes that he take the children to the bank.
Straight after comes what is possibly the greatest song in this entire movie – ‘Feed the Birds; Tuppence a Bag’. This entire sequence is unimaginably beautiful – from Julie Andrews’ singing voice, to the screenplay that cross-dissolves between the Banks’ bedroom and the Cathedral where the old woman sits feeding the birds, to the magnificent instrumental score between verses. The message of this song is so powerful, and the way it is conveyed is even stronger, and you can still treat it as a lesson to learn and as an enjoyable song, and still love every second of it. The reason this song is so powerful is because of its effect on the children the very next day, where Mr. Banks takes Jane and Michael to the Bank and Michael is stubborn about wanting to feed the birds using a tuppence he owns, and Mr. Banks is stubborn about showing him what may truly be done with the tuppence, believing that it will be more interesting.
The set-piece for the bank is excellent, and the introduction to Mr. Dawes Sr is also great – the best thing is that Mr. Dawes Sr. is played by Dick Van Dyke also, and the makeup and mannerisms disguise it so well that you forget that it is the same person who was, only five or so minutes ago, helping the children fly to the ceiling to have a tea party. The reason for this character’s introduction is to be another opponent for what Mary Poppins is trying to teach the children – he tries to take their tuppence from them and help them invest into it so that they can make a load of money, which Mr. Banks is completely on board with because this is the kind of world that he inhabits. This is probably the first time that people watching this movie genuinely question rooting for Mr. Banks, that he could look like a bad father, but in fact it’s just a way to show what kind of world that Mr. Banks has become a part of. This leads to Jane and Michael fleeing the bank with their tuppence and causing a massive uproar in the bank.
When the children run away, they run into Bert once again and now he’s a chimney-sweep. When he comforts Jane and Michael, there is a surprise moment when he explains how he feels for Mr. Banks, because the latter didn’t choose his life and is simply struggling to make ends meet in a world where money reigns supreme. He only acts angrily and miserably because that is the kind of situation he finds himself in, a heartfelt man surrounded by (And I quote) ‘Cold, heartless money’. This is one of those heartfelt moments in the movie, because it makes you feel more for George Banks and shows how somebody who has never met him, who couldn’t have been more different from him, understands him better than his own children. The following song, ‘Chim-Chim-cher-ee’, summarizes Bert’s character incredibly well in my opinion.
The scenes that follow, with Bert and Mary Poppins taking the children up through the chimneys onto the rooftops of London, are mesmerizingly well-done. You can tell that a lot of it is artificially generated, but the entire journey across the rooftops is great. This brings us on to what is probably everyone’s favourite song in the film, ‘Step in Time’, with Bert and his pals singing, and Admiral Boom sending fireworks at them. What follows, with the dance moving down into the Banks house, where everyone joins into it and adds their own lyrics – except, of course, for Mr. Banks, who cuts off the song in his usual, sharp, angry way. We then learn that, as a result of the little riot at the bank, George Banks has to go to the bank to be dismissed. This news completely depletes the happiness and energy that had been built up in the previous scenes, and it reminds us that this is a very emotional movie.
From this point onwards, the film takes on the perspective of George Banks entirely. Every time I see him take that walk to the bank, I very nearly shed a tear for him, and when we see the bank governors humiliate him to show that they are firing him, I remember feeling like wringing my hands at the sight of it. This part suddenly picks up amazingly quickly when George suddenly bursts into laughter at the fact that he doesn’t know what to say, and hysterically says ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, before actually telling a joke he’d heard off his children, and funnily enough Mr. Dawes reacts the same way that George Banks himself reacted upon first hearing it. When he leaves, actually starting to sing ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ and dancing as he goes, I actually believe that he’s going crazy, but in fact he’s beginning to feel genuinely happy for the first time in the film.
Of course, the ending of the film is a brilliant conclusion to what this film has been creating, with George Banks returning home in absolute joy, shocking the whole household because he’s usually so serious – even when Mary Poppins states that he is calling their name, Jane and Michael remark that it doesn’t sound like him. Then he reveals that he’s repaired the kite they brought back at the start of the film, and they start singing the final song of the film ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’, while Mary Poppins packs up and leaves 17 Cherry-Tree Lane, with Bert bidding her farewell as she flies away into the distance – a happy ending for basically everyone in the film.
In my opinion, this film is one of the absolute best films that Walt Disney ever created – the acting, story, song, score, sets and everything are faultless.
This film inevitably deserves a 10/10