Mary Tyler Moore hit the nail on the head when, on the night of Mary Poppins' gala world premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater, she called the film "the best thing since Wizard of Oz." Mary Poppins indeed was Disney's Wizard of Oz, a tuneful fantasy extravaganza with shades of vaudeville or, in this case, English music hall entertainment. Though Mary Poppins isn't quite as transcendent as The Wizard of Oz (what is?), it's one of the great movie musicals and of that rare breed of deathless family entertainment that's guaranteed to transfix children, well beyond this, its fiftieth anniversary.
Mary Poppins was Walt Disney's top live-action pet project (and with the possible exception of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, his most personally important film). Disney's hands-on care and attention shows: it's a lavish production, and Uncle Walt's instincts were dead on as he gathered up screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, wordplay-loving brothers Robert and Richard Sherman to write the songs and Irwin Kostal for the superb orchestrations, Julie Andrews for the title role, then-husband Tony Walton as costumer and set designer, Dick Van Dyke to play Cockney factotum Bert, and choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, among many others. That the end result remains a touch ungainly probably owes mostly to author P.L. Travers, who both authored source material episodic enough to be resistant to feature-length narrative then resolved to make matters even harder with her decades-long refusal to let go of the screen rights, followed by an insistence that everything would run through her.
Luckily, Disney and his creative staff wore Travers down to tell the story of magical nanny Mary Poppins, who alights at Cherry Tree Lane to set right a family in need. Jane and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) have run roughshod over a series of nannies while experiencing a general feeling of neglect from their sympathetic but distracted suffragette mother Winifred (Glynis Johns) and stuffy banker George (David Tomlinson). Poppins promises to be "kind, but extremely firm" and proceeds to teach the children that "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" (and making cleaning up fun helps to get the job done), that "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is a fine word when one is otherwise at a loss, and that goodness and love cost as little as "tuppence a day." Still, it's demonstrable that their father needs so much more to learn the same lessons, to let go of his stiff sense of propriety and enjoy life, most of all through his family.
Above all, the music makes Mary Poppins what it is and defines the film's shifting tones. At times the tunes are chipper (the manic "Step in Time"), at others melancholy or wistful ("Feed The Birds"); Best Original Song Oscar winner "Chim Chim Cher-ee" proves especially flexible, as both a briskly cheery number and ominous, moody variations. Of nearly equal importance is star Andrews, who took on Mary Poppins in the wake of professional disappointment (losing out, to Audrey Hepburn, on the film version of Andrews' stage smash My Fair Lady). Andrews' screen presence and voice radiate like pure light, and she won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her first screen appearance. Van Dyke has been the butt of many a joke (including ones made at his own expense) for his slippery Cockney accent, and his stage-y performance may make adults wince, but his vigorous long-legged dancing and comic versatility instantly endear him to young viewers (plus, he proves his capacity for subtlety by doubling as elderly banker Mr. Dawes Sr.
And it all comes back around to the Disney dream factory. Thanks to the ingenuity of Disney himself and teams of animators and Oscar-winning special effects men, Mary Poppins was and is as astonishing in its sights as in its sounds. The "Jolly Holiday" sequence includes wonderments like Van Dyke dancing with animated penguin waiters and Mary, Bert and the children riding off and away from a merry-go-round on magically liberated horses that continue to gently pogo up and down. Similarly, the "I Love to Laugh" scene with Ed Wynn's Uncle Albert is a classic case of movie "how'd they do that?" as the characters float in the vicinity of a ceiling. The 139-minute picture stretches time in odd ways, like the nearly fourteen minutes devoted to chimney sweeping (really to music-hall high-stepping and acrobatic dance), but Mary Poppins is a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of picture, too sweet to be resisted by any kid and a worthwhile refresher course in being young at heart for any adult.
Disney celebrates Mary Poppins with its Blu-ray debut—just in time for its 50th Anniversary and synergy with the new Disney feature film release Saving Mr. Banks. The Mary Poppins 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack boasts a brand-new hi-def transfer that allows the film to look its very best. Short of moving up to 4K, it's hard to imagine this film looking better on home video. The picture retains its filmic character with light grain, and the rich Technicolor looks more fully saturated in high-def. Detail proves revelatory; the film may not have ever yielded this much information in any previous presentation. It's hard to imagine any real complaints about this transfer, which looks like the film we know and love, just cleaner and sharper. Audio options are lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 and original stereo Dolby Digital 2.0. While 7.1 is overkill for the source material, it's safe to say Mary Poppins will likely never sound any better than it does here, and if it does, it probably shouldn't!
The significant new bonus feature for this 50th Anniversary Edition is "Becoming Mr. Sherman" (14:01, HD), an at-the-piano conversation between Richard Sherman and Jason Schwartzman, who plays Sherman in Saving Mr. Banks. The first few seconds and last few minutes of the featurette are the film's trailer, excerpted and then in its entirety. But the rest is a charming chat between the musically adept Sherman and his respectful, even awed, acolyte.
The only other new HD feature is so-called Mary-Oke (7:58, HD) isn't karaoke, but dynamically animated lyrics allowing for sing-alongs to "Spoonful of Sugar," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Step in Time" and "Chim Chim Cher-ee." It would have been nice to have more archival deleted songs and production design art packed on here, or more of the archival stuff remastered in HD, but this is, to date, the definitive release.
The excellent archival bonus features include an invaluable audio commentary with Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice, Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman, and Dick Van Dyke and a Disney On Broadway section including "Mary Poppins From Page to Stage" (48:06, SD) and "Step In Time" (7:08, SD).
Backstage Disney includes the terrific making-of doc "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins" (50:46, SD), hosted by Dick Van Dyke and including interviews with Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, Richard and Robert Sherman, Karen Dotrice, Glynis Johns, Disney animator Andreas Deja, author Valerie Lawson, cameraman Bob Broughton, sculptor Blaine Gibson, matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Disney producer Don Hahn, animator Frank Thomas, choreographers Dee Dee Wood and Mark Breaux, costume designer Tony Walton, and historian Brian Sibley. Also here are archival montages "The Gala World Premiere" (17:45, SD) and "The Gala World Premiere Party" (6:23, SD), kid-friendly special-effects featurette "Movie Magic" (7:05, SD), "Deconstruction of Scene: 'Jolly Holiday'" (13:03, SD), "Deconstruction of a Scene: 'Step in Time'" (4:52, SD) and "Dick Van Dyke Make-up Test" (1:07, SD).
Music & More holds the delightful "Magical Musical Reunion Featuring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke And Richard Sherman" (17:19, SD), fascinating "Deleted Song: 'Chimpanzoo'" (1:38, SD) and Disney Song Selection (32:55, HD) offering direct access to the film's songs.
Bonus Short 'The Cat That Looked At a King" (9:52, SD) returns, and the Publicity section archives the "Original Theatrical Teaser Trailer" (2:54, SD) , "Original Theatrical Trailer" (4:14, SD), "Julie Andrews Premiere Greeting Trailer" (:39, SD), "Original TV Spot #1" (:32, SD), "Original TV Spot #2" (:33, SD), "1966 Re-Issue Trailer" (1:02, SD), "1973 Re-Issue Trailer #1" (1:12, SD), "1973 Re-Issue Trailer #2" (1:02, SD).
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