Folks who first meet Appellate Judge Michael Stailey in real life are quite surprised to find that he's an animated penguin.
"Just as I thought. 'Mary Poppins, practically perfectly in every way.'"—Mary Poppins
It took Walt Disney more than 25 years to secure the rights to make this film, and what seems just about as long for the Walt Disney corporation to release a DVD edition worthy of this cinematic masterpiece. But, as George Banks himself would say, "kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts." The third time is a charm, as Disney brings us a 40th Anniversary Edition loaded with new behind-the-scenes bonus materials and far more insight into this film than any fan could possibly hope for.
Facts of the Case
The Banks household is in turmoil. Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber), two prime examples of disenfranchised youth in turn-of-the-century England, have run off yet another nanny (Elsa Lanchester, Murder By Death) in a fit of hysteria, forcing their father George—a fastidious banking executive (David Tomlinson, The Love Bug)—to take charge of the situation. When the children present their list of requirements for a new nanny, George hastily dismisses them and pursues his own ideals for a skilled disciplinarian.
As interview day arrives, the line of potential candidates stretches down the block. A dismal sight indeed for Jane and Michael, but the childrens' fortunes quickly change when a hurricane force wind sweeps into the quiet neighborhood, carrying away each of the dowdy caregivers and leaving the field wide open for the airborne arrival of one Ms. Mary Poppins. Surprisingly, this super nanny meets all of the qualifications set forth by the children, militarily charms Mr. Banks into giving her the position, and sets forth to straighten out these two prepubescent troublemakers with a subtle touch of magic, a healthy dose of music and fun, and a considerable amount of love.
There is little argument or doubt that Mary Poppins is the crowning achievement of Walt's filmmaking career. What's more, the film's release in 1964 poetically brought his life full circle. As early as 1923, Walt, his brother Roy, and film pioneer Ub Iwerks were attempting to seamlessly merge the worlds of live action and animation. The Alice comedies were groundbreaking works of art, but Hollywood and the general public viewed them as little more than a passing novelty. Five years and 57 short films later, Walt and his team shifted their focus back to animation (and the development of a certain mouse), although the idea of eventually mastering this technique rarely strayed far from his mind.
Walt was a man who never gave up on a good idea. In fact, many of the projects so closely identified with the Disney name—Snow White, Fantasia, Disneyland, Walt Disney World, EPCOT—were concepts his peers and financiers scoffed at. But Walt had the unique gift of making things happen, in the face of insurmountable odds. Such was the case with Mary Poppins. Noted children's author Pamela Travers created the character and her many adventures. Back in 1938, Walt's daughters, Diane and Sharon, were enthralled with the books and had their father read the tales to them over and over again. The more he did, the more he saw an opportunity for his live action/animation dream to be realized. Unfortunately, gaining the rights to these stories from Mrs. Travers would prove to be a challenge—for more than 25 years! Despite being shot down time and again, Walt never wavered in his certainty that this project would get made. Even after gaining her conditional approval in 1961, Mrs. Travers continued to hold tight to her convictions through each stage of production. The end result was worth the aggravation and wait. In 1964, Mary Poppins premiered to critical acclaim, garnering Golden Globe and Academy Awards for Julie Andrews (actress), Robert and Richard Sherman (score and song), Cotton Warburton (editing), and Peter Ellenshaw (visual effects), with nominations for Dick Van Dyke (actor), Robert Stevenson (direction), Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh (screenplay), Edward Colman (cinematography), Tony Walton (costumes), and Emile Kuri, Carroll Clark, William Tuntke, and Hal Gausman (art direction).
What makes this film so special? It's the complete package. You have what appears, on the surface, to be a straightforward story. Dysfunctional family: Father married to his work, Mother pre-occupied with a variety of social causes, and Children raised by a rotating door of caregivers, acting up in the hopes of drawing attention to their desperate need to be loved. In walks Super Nanny, who treats the children like responsible young adults while using a variety of lessons to teach the entire family what is most important in life. Dysfunction corrected, mission accomplished, and off she goes to the next family in need. Nothing we haven't seen before in a multitude of formats and settings. But infused in every scene of Mary Poppins is that inimitable Disney magic. From the casting and music, to the cinematography and art direction, Walt managed to inspire every member of his team to excel above and beyond the standard expectations of their roles.
Strong, yet tender. Firm, yet forgiving. Her unique blend of proper British nanny forcefulness (in scenes with David Tomlinson), and coy playfulness (in scenes with Dick Van Dyke) gives us only the merest glimpse of what lay beneath the surface of this enigmatic woman. Who is Mary Poppins? Where did she come from? Is she a witch? Is she immortal? How does she know Bert? Is he one of her former charges? Where does she go from here? So many questions, so little time.
As if a wonderful character were not enough, we have the pleasure of listening to that golden voice breathe life, love, and meaning into the words and music of the Sherman brothers. Despite illness and resulting surgery having since stripped her of this gift, the world will forever be enthralled by what she achieved with Mary Poppins and so many other great films.
Dick Van Dyke
Bert too is an enigma—A jack-of-all-trades and nomadic entertainer, with strong familial bonds to Mary and her family (Uncle Albert). Is he too a member of this gifted race of beings? Or has he just had the past pleasure of observing them first hand?
Regardless, Van Dyke plays Bert with a childlike optimism and exuberance. His flirtatious relationship with Mary suggests he's a man who has found his ideal partner and is determined to wear down her resistance. His empathy for and care with the Banks children, and his sly honesty with their father, contributes a great deal to further the work Mary has already begun with the family. And for sheer comedic relief, we get to see the screwball Van Dyke chew scenery as the elder Mr. Dawes.
Presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, this transfer will astound you with its warmth and vibrancy. For a film shot nearly 40 years ago, the image quality is virtually free from dirt and scratches. (I have not seen the previous DVD releases so I am unable to draw comparisons, but this is one of the best presentations of an older film I have ever seen). The same can be said for the sound quality. Disney continues to create these Enhanced 5.1 mixes that resonates through each channel amazingly well. In this case, it's nearly all Sherman brothers, whose music defines the film. Not surprisingly, Richard and Robert began work on the musical score two years ahead of script development, and helped define the direction of the sub-tales to be used. The set also includes a standard 5.1 Surround track and the film's original 2.0 Stereo mix (both in English), as well a French and Spanish 5.1 language tracks.
The bonus materials, while coming up just shy of the bar set by the presentation of the now defunct "Vault Disney" line, features enough backstory to charm even the most devoted Disney and Poppins fans.
Beautifully crafted menus complete with music and animation whisk the viewer into the chalk painting where everyone's favorite penguin wait staff present the daily specials…
• Music & More
• Backstage Disney
"Poppins Pop-up Fun Facts"—Pop-up video time. Interesting trivia and movie minutia will grace your screen as you watch the film. Perhaps I'm one of the few who find this feature more annoying than informative. The other bonus materials on these two discs will provide much of the same background information in a much less gimmicky format.
• Sneak Peeks
As we walk along the sidewalks of Hyde Park, we are given the opportunity to pop in and out of chalk paintings to witness a plethora of engaging material.
• Deleted Song
• Music & More
"A Musical Journey"—Richard Sherman hosts a 20-minute blue screen trip through time, giving viewers almost everything they wanted to know about the origins and development of the film's musical score.
• Games & Activities
• Backstage Disney
"Movie Magic"—This hip 2002 Disney Channel seven-minute featurette looks back at the visual effects used in the film. Most Disney-philes will already know everything contained within, but this piece is geared for the kids.
"Deconstruction of a Scene"—Two separate featurettes for "Jolly Holiday" and "Step in Time" show how these scenes were filmed, animated, and cut together for what turns out to be some of Mary Poppins's most memorable moments. Budding filmmakers and Disney fanatics will love this beautifully presented look at this rare, never before seen rehearsal and performance footage. Director Robert Stevenson did an astounding job at marshalling the various forces needed to pull this off, as you will quickly realize.
"Dick Van Dyke Make Up Test"—Dick narrates footage of his transformation into the elder Mr. Dawes, the crotchety old bank president.
"The Gala World Premiere"—Studio archive footage of the 17-minute live televised broadcast of Mary Poppins's world premiere and the live radio broadcast of after-party at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. A throwback to much simpler and innocent time in American history. Yet another feature you do not want to pass up.
"Original Theatrical Trailer"—A four-minute preview very unlike the trailers we see today.
"Julie Andrews Premiere Greeting"—Julie introduces the announcement of the film's exclusive run at a select group of theatres.
• Two Original TV Spots
• Three Re-Issue Trailers
• Still Art Galleries
• Bonus Short
The mark of an exceptional film is to leave the audience wanting more. Mary Poppins certainly does that. For years, rumors have swirled the hallowed halls of Disney's Glendale offices that a follow-up was in the works. In fact, discussions between Disney execs and Mrs. Travers began in the '80s, but rumors suggest they stalled when she insisted Dick Van Dyke be replaced as Bert. The Travers estate (Pamela passed away in 1996) still holds a firm grasp on the rights, and despite many stories of a reunion film starring Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews (read Jim Hill's column), it never came to pass. In a way, this may all be for the best. Despite wanting to see what Mary and Bert have been up to after all these years, no on wants to see the magic of this film cheapened by a new sub-standard adventure. Simply leave well enough alone and delight to the many reminiscences found on this glorious anniversary release. Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition is a must own for any kid at heart.
Oh, by the way, the legend does live on, as über-producer Cameron Macintosh has launched Mary Poppins: The Musical in London's West End. It's headed for Broadway and will eventually embark on a national tour that will make its way to your town. Until then, you have Mrs. Travers books and this wonderful DVD release to keep you entertained.
This court applauds Disney for a release worthy of this celebrated film. In fact, our team of legal experts is diligently exploring ways to amend the DVD Constitution, such that the studios are mandated to provide the same reverential treatment to all highly beloved films. Case graciously dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary -- Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice, Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman, and Dick Van Dyke
Review content copyright © 2005 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.