Sunday, October 13, 2013


Film: Mary Poppins
Format: DVD from Manhattan-Elwood Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I can’t say that I was terribly surprised when Mary Poppins arrived on the table with the List reboot. I also can’t pretend to say that I was overjoyed at the prospect. I’m pretty sure I’d seen it before, but equally sure it had been more than three decades since I’d seen it. There’s a lot of singing and a lot of cheery nonsense and a great deal of how children should be and how parents should be without touching anything near the reality of what parents and children are. In other words, it’s a Disney film from that time in the past when Disney films meant wholesome childhood entertainment on the surface and disturbing life lesson buried deep down inside. Wait, that’s pretty much non-Pixar Disney even now.

Anyway, the thing that most people remember about Mary Poppins is Dick Van Dyke’s execrable accent. I have two things to say about that. First, it’s absolutely true that Van Dyke’s attempt to sound something like a Cockney is the very definition of embarrassing. Did no one tell him? Did they watch the dailies with the sound off? My 10-year-old does a better one. Second, it’s not by a damn sight the most unfortunate part of this film.

Things are amiss in the Banks home. Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) is a banker and likes his home to be run on time and the way he likes it. His wife (Glynis Johns) is a suffragette and doesn’t have time for her two children. This is why they have a nanny, a woman named Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester), who starts the movie by quitting her job. The kids have run off again.

She leaves and the children arrive. They are Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber), and like all movie children of the age, they are precocious and cute (although quite frankly, Matthew Garber’s head is shaped exactly like a garlic bulb). They battle with their father over what they want in a new nanny. He wants discipline. They want someone fun, and the song they sing about their perfect nanny naturally includes physical specifications. This is, after all, a Disney film, and in the world of Disney, ugly equals evil.

The next day, a whole slew of nannies show up for work, but a giant wind blows them all away, because the only nanny for the job is Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews). She’s everything everyone wants in a nanny—she is precisely what the kids have asked for, and she doesn’t shirk on the discipline, either. She’s also laden with magical powers, evidenced by her flying in on an umbrella, ability to slide up banisters, and to make toys put themselves away by snapping her fingers. For the next however many days, she leads the kids on magical adventures, taking them into cartoon worlds that exist inside the chalk paintings of her friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke).

It should be mentioned here that Bert evidently has a different job every week. Sometimes he does chalk drawings, sometimes he’s a one-man band, sometimes he sells kites, and sometimes he’s a chimney sweep. He’s got a different job every time we see him. He also has an offensively broad Cockney accent that comes and goes as it pleases.

Anyway, the whole point of Mary Poppins is that the kids learn a little discipline, one supposes, although it seems that all they do is run around in fairlyland with their magical nanny. The real point of the film is to teach their father to be something other than the serious stick-in-the-mud that he is. That’s the point of many a kids’ film, of course. There’s nothing wrong with the kids. It’s always the adults who need to learn that life isn’t about money and work.

I understand how a child could watch this film and be entranced by it, but I do not for the life of me understand how an adult could have the same reaction. Certainly there are parts that are fun and funny, and despite his varying and terrible accent, Dick Van Dyke is often the best part of what’s going on on screen. The same cannot be said for anyone else (the animation is sometimes the best thing to see, too). Julie Andrews, who won an Oscar for this role, has a great singing voice. That’s it. Mary Poppins as a character, despite all of the magic and whimsy, is a conceited snob. The kids are pretty much there as spectators for everything that goes on around them and are here only because they have to be.

Suffice to say that I didn’t like Mary Poppins. Further, it’s not a film I’d really want my kids to watch. See, sometimes I have to be business-like and efficient. I can’t always go run off and fly kites. I need to pay bills. Like many kids’ films of its era, Mary Poppins creates unreal expectations and espouses an unreal ideology.

Years ago, Mary Poppins herself would’ve been burned as a witch. Oh, to have this set in those times!

Why to watch Mary Poppins You already know most of the songs.
Why not to watch: A diabetic coma is a real possibility.


  1. You should have just done this review in one word and left it at that: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

    1. Not really my style. Anyway, according to the film, that word is supposed to make everything better, and this film doesn't deserve it.

  2. "I understand how a child could watch this film and be entranced by it, but I do not for the life of me understand how an adult could have the same reaction."

    I think I can understand an adult's enchantment. If a child who had been entranced by "Mary Poppins" years ago were to see the movie again as an adult, it's quite conceivable, I think, for the adult to experience a regressive moment, and find him-/herself back in his/her childhood.

    I know this is possible because it happened to me: back in my sophomore year of college, a bunch of us were in the dorm lounge, flipping around random TV channels. We lit upon a "Sesame Street" retrospective and stopped flipping. All of us watched avidly. At one point, the show talked about how "Sesame Street" dealt head-on with the death of the beloved Mr. Hooper (Will Lee). One girl saw my face and said, "Kevin! Your eyes are so wide!" I guess I was really into that segment. Totally regressed.

    Anyway, my point is merely that such a revisiting of the past is possible, not that it's inevitable. The opposite reaction is also possible: one might feel shame, for example, upon watching "Star Wars" as an adult and realizing that George Lucas's inability to craft good dialogue extended back at least as far as 1977 (were "THX-1138" and "American Graffiti" exceptions?). One might also realize that those awesome special effects no longer look quite so awesome, and that Luke Skywalker was a really whiny bitch back then.

    1. All true. This is something that seems to happen frequently. I wasn't forced into watching Mary Poppins as a child, so the magic passed over me.

      And, Luke was a whiny bitch. And American Graffiti has some pretty good dialogue, and not all of it in Star Wars was bad ("wretched hive of scum and villainy" springs to mind). Luke was always a whiny bitch--him and his power converters.

      For what it's worth, this is a phenomenon I'll be looking at with one of today's films--I missed the "I'm enchanted by it" cutoff.

  3. Man, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed. :-)

    You know, if you tell your kids they can't watch it, they'll just sneak over to a friend's house to see it.

    "I understand how a child could watch this film and be entranced by it, but I do not for the life of me understand how an adult could have the same reaction."

    Well, I never saw this film until a few years ago - well out of my childhood - and while I was hardly entranced, I liked it. Why? Because it's a happy film and I liked the songs. Frankly, why would that be dislikable? Because it's not realistic, you say? We've had that conversation before; I no more expect realism from a musical than I do from an action film.

    I think this version of Mary Poppins would be more to your liking:

    (It's a re-edited trailer done as part of a contest to prove the point that movie trailers can be quite misleading. In this case it presents Mary Poppins as a horror film.)

    1. My kids are welcome to watch this whenever they want. They can just expect that I won't watch it with them.

      I may not have been clear on my use of "realism." The term "verisimilitude" is more what I meant by this. I'm not expecting the real world for a musical. What I am expecting is a world that is internally consistent with what it expects me to believe and understand. I didn't find that here. It's why I don't take something like Love Me Tonight or Singin' in the Rain to task for not being realistic. It's also why I gave a film like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a very favorable review. Mary Poppins doesn't hold together for me. There are too many places where I see the strings and the glue.

      I've seen the re-edited trailer. My favorite version of Mary Poppins resides here: