When we’re young, our taste in films is very often influenced by what our parents enjoyed as children themselves. Mary Poppins was my mum’s favourite movie when she was growing up in the 1960s, and thanks to the power of VHS, it also became one of my own childhood favourites. However, as anyone old enough to have danced the Macarena will sympathise, the advent of DVD and Blu-ray players has since rendered my extensive video collection obsolete. Having not seen this Disney classic in more than a decade, I didn’t hesitate to hit the “record” button when I discovered it playing on TV over the Christmas holidays. Despite some awry cockney accents, I was left in no doubt that Mary Poppins remains a true masterpiece of musical cinema.
Released in 1964, Poppins is a deceptively simple reworking of P.L. Travers’ fantasy book series. Set in Edwardian London, it tells the story of the eponymous nanny (Julie Andrews), who is hired to care for the mischievous siblings Jane and Michael Banks. Along with her jack-of-all-trades companion Bert (Dick Van Dyke), Poppins uses her unique brand of magic and manners to teach the children – and even a few of the adults – a thing or two about growing up. The project was a labour of love for producer Walt Disney, the maverick filmmaker having spent decades attempting to acquire the film rights; unconvinced her work was suited to the big screen, Travers only conceded under the condition that she receive final script approval. What resulted was a loose yet effective adaptation, which would remain Disney’s highest grossing film for twenty years.
As several of us at Telstar are painfully aware, revisiting cherished childhood movies is a precarious business. Especially with fantasy films, which often rely on special effects and absurd plot twists, you tend to find yourself more than a little disappointed. So, after almost five decades since it first amazed audiences, I was thrilled to find Poppins as captivating and beautiful as ever. When Poppins, Bert, Jane and Michael jump into a chalk drawing for example, I was still perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief. This was always my favourite sequence as a boy, and there’s something forever enchanting about watching live-action performers interact with cartoon characters. Dick Van Dyke’s dance with a troop of penguin waiters is a particular joy to witness, displaying an artistry often imitated but never surpassed.
Yet Poppins not only holds up visually and narratively, but musically as well. The Sherman Brothers have arguably written some of the most memorable songs in Disney history, but this is surely their finest work; there’s not one dud number, not one chorus that doesn’t make you want to leap from your seat. And since memory and music are so intrinsically linked, these songs also make the film much more poignant to watch, taking me back to an age when it was socially acceptable to enjoy sing-a-long sessions on long car journeys. Thus, whether it was the absurd “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” melodious “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” or haunting “Feed the Birds,” each musical number chimes with an added nostalgia. As uncool as it may be to admit, I have now purchased my favourite tracks from iTunes.
Of course, perhaps the greatest appeal of Poppins is Julie Andrews’ astounding central performance. Playing the prim English nanny with just enough compassion and caring, generations of audiences can’t help but fall in love with her. Coupled with that legendary singing voice, it would seem like Poppins was a role Andrews was born to play. That said, it does bare noting that her debut film appearance almost didn’t happen; she was originally set to play Eliza Doolittle in the Warner Bros adaptation of My Fair Lady, before studio executives opted for established Hollywood star Audrey Hepburn. All of this subsequently led to Andrews’ now legendary quip, “I’d like to thank the man who made this all possible: Jack Warner,” made during her Best Actress acceptance speech at the Oscars.
After nearly half a century, then, Mary Poppins remains practically perfect in every way. A classic family film, it will continue to entertain and amaze children – and their parents – for decades to come. There have been many would-be successors to the Poppins mantel, most notably Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee, but all pale in comparison. If you haven’t seen it in a while, I implore you to seek it out; with so much doom and gloom in the news these days, it’s sure to make your heart soar. And for those who wish to enjoy one more magical adventure, why not check out The Cat That Looked at a King, a short film based on another of Travers’ original stories.