Monday, April 28, 2014

Let’s Review a Movie: Mary Poppins (1964)

In honour of its 50th anniversary this year I’m taking a look at this Disney classic.  That I think represents the pinnacle of work at the studio for that era. 

I loved this film as a kid and I still love it as adult. In fact in watching the film for this review I was surprised at how much overlap there was of things that I enjoyed despite the age gap between viewings.  Dick Van Dyke’s attempt at a cockney accent is horrible, but his character of Bert and the older Mr. Dawes are still hilarious.  All the “posts!” scenes are still great, especially when Mr. Banks is involved because the ladies all run to save all the breakables in the house and he just goes right on with whatever he was doing.  Admiral Boom still gets some good laughs and so does Uncle Albert and the entire ‘I Love to Laugh’ sequence.  The story overall is wonderfully engaging, and the songs and the dance sequences are as spectacular as ever.       

Certain things were also different this time around too.  For instance I never liked ‘Feed the Birds’ as a kid and now it’s my second favourite song in the film.  Second best because in another overlap ‘Step in Time’ is still my favourite song and sequence in the film.  Sure I can see where some of the sweeps jump in from the chimneys now, and some of the other effects in the movie like the reversing the film in the cleaning up the nursery scene, but it is still such a great song and dance number.  Also I love the dialogue like Admiral Boom firing at the “hot in tots” and the line form Cook “Ahh! They’re at it again!”  Apparently chimney sweeps dancing around the living room is a regular occurrence in the Banks household.  One of the really big changes I noticed this time though was that the ‘Jolly Holiday’ scenes weren’t as much fun as they were when I was a kid; probably because those scenes are really geared towards kids.  They have bright colours, three very upbeat songs and over the top animal characters, like the penguins and the fox.  Not bad at all the acting is fun, especially Dick Van Dyke, the animation has the charming connection that Disney characters should and the effects like the merry go round still look so good.  But I found myself connecting so much more with the quieter, somber, aspects of the film this time around.  That probably accounts for I love ‘Feed the Birds’ so much now.  It is a soft, but powerful song that drives homes the message of the film.  Furthermore I also felt a much greater connection to Mr. Banks as an adult.  As a kid he was the grouchy guy who wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, except for his “no I do not know the number!” line and smacking his head on the fireplace.  As an adult I can get so much more of where he is coming from.   About him wanting to set up an accomplished and secure life for himself and his family, and his struggle at the end with losing his job that is his whole world is being lost.  Yet there is also that quiet scene with Bert in the living room where he reminds Mr. Banks that there are things beyond his job and that they are growing up far too quickly.  That whole character arc is much more understandable now.  The shots where he is walking back to the bank at night and all alone are gripping, and the scene with him and the directors is ten times more enjoyable as adult because I understand the context so much better now.  As a kid I never understood why the people at the bank wrecked his hat, and umbrella, and tore the flower off his lapel but now I know it’s for public humiliation.  So everyone will know he is a disgraced man.  The scene is wonderfully set here too; with the bankers all sitting around the long table with this bright red carpet that just fades away into black.  It’s very intimidating and I love it.

Along with still loving Bert and finding a great connection with Mr. Banks the other characters in this film are great as well.  As a kid I connected with Jane and Michael because I was close to them in age, but they are really fine child actors.  They act like actual children and many of their reactions to the effects in the film are genuine which is great.  Mrs. Banks was always fun as this great bubbly kind of anti-authority person as an involved suffragette.  Her song ‘Sister Suffragette’ is still fun and wonderful and I really like Elsa Lancaster as Katie Nanna here.  She provides such a great contrast to the upbeat Mrs. Banks and her crew and it’s just makes the scene really funny, and I love that the supporting characters like Ellen and Cook get to have those kinds of moments too.  They’re great back and forth before Mrs. Banks gets home is a treat to watch.  Not to be out done by all of this of course is the title character herself Mary Poppins. She too is such a wonderful character, because she is assertive and strong while still being distinctly feminine.  This is helped by the great costume design that Julie Andrews points out has hints of bright red in it like the tie and the lining of her jacket.  Giving us a hint of the fiery personality underneath the prim and proper outside and it allows for complexity and depth.  Mary Poppins is strict and soft yet vain and kind of arrogant too and it keeps her very well rounded.  It would have been easy to fall over into too sugary sweet or too stand offish and cold, but here a perfect balance is struck.    

Now I do have to say that one minor thing that annoys me as an adult is the Bank scene.  Now ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’ is a great song and Dick Van Dyke’s performance is hilarious as I’ve said especially when he is so enthused talking about the bank his is falling over backwards.  The problem comes with Michael.  As I kid I never really liked seeing him yelling and causing the run on the bank.  As an adult I find it even more annoying. Seriously Michael stop refusing the funny old man and just put your money in the bank.  It will earn interest, in theory, and then you will be able to feed more birds.  That is a total nitpick though.  I know getting more money was totally not the point of the story.  The point was that it’s the small things done out of kindness that really matter.  Mr. Banks fixing the kite at the end isn’t a big action, but it means a great deal to Jane and Michael; also them initially giving him the tuppence is their small way of trying to fix what happened at the bank and in effect it does.  It gets Mr. Banks to realize what is truly important in life and so the Banks are a family, even Mrs. Banks joins them after spending the movie focused solely on her role outside of them.  I don’t think she is giving up the suffragette movement as is sometimes suggested.  I just think her putting her banner on as the tail of kite shows how she is going to put her family first and that second.  Having the banner flying all over the park is a great way to get the cause exposure it just won’t take up as much of her time.  The same we get with Mr. Banks who is shown to get his job back at the end of the film and we aren’t supposed to assume this means he is going to go right back to making that job the focal point of his life.  Also part of the feminist movement of which suffragette cause sits in is the idea that woman have a choice to stay at home and raise their children if they want to.

Really on every level this film just works incredibly well.  The message is great the story and characters are all charming.  The look of the film is beautiful from the costumes, to the sets, to the gorgeous matte paintings done by the masterful Peter Ellenshaw.  Everyone just seems to be having a great time making a great movie.  I think Richard Sherman was right on the commentary for this film when he said this was a project of love.  This wasn’t done to make money or because the source material was really popular and a movie should be made to capitalize on it.  They didn’t cast actors that were well known just for star power but instead took people like Julie Andrews on as her first film.  This film was made because just really wanted to make it and it make it well.  I do love the commentary on this film by the way.  Actually I think the ones done for the classic Disney films are the best commentaries for films that I’ve listened to. Although it did ruin the magic just a bit by explain how they slide up and down the banister, thanks guys.  Still, this commentary not only had people who were in the film like Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but also Richard Sherman one of the original song writers along with recordings from his brother Robert Sherman, the director, the composer, and even Walt Disney himself.  And I do have to laugh at how Walt says that the critics denounced him for making saccharine films while also making things that scare children. 

While like when the critics called Snow White Disney’s folly they get to eat crow and humble pie here too, because making a family film, at least when they’re directly under Walt, gives the project the ability to hit that wide age range and has ensured this film’s longevity.  The bright and charming animation is great for younger audiences, the strong story of coming together to be family and that’s it the little things that truly matter is what holds the film for adults, at least for me.  The songs work across the board and the situations are still funny, fun, and touching even after all this time.  It is a wonderful film not just within Disney canon, but period.  Everything works here from the story and the acting to the set design and the gorgeous matte paintings and costumes.  Sure some of the special effects may be easier to spot with time, but the charm of the story and the characters within it more than makes up for that and I know this film will easily stand for another fifty years.

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