It only makes sense to honor this week’s release of Saving Mr. Banks with a review of the film serving as its inspiration. Much ink has been spilled on Disney’s numerous attempts to translate P.L. Travers’ series of books to the screen, and unfortunately, Travers wasn’t a fan of this adaptation enough to release the rights to subsequent sequels. Decades have passed, and Broadway impresario Cameron Mackintosh still had to struggle to get the Travers’ family on with a Broadway adaptation. With that, I’ve tried since childhood to connect with this movie and have always failed. There’s something about Mary Poppins which provides more ire than smiles despite stellar performances from Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson. With that being said, what is it about Mary Poppins which fails to inspire me to fly a kite?
Mary Poppins tells the story of the eponymous nanny who is “practically perfect in every way.” When tasked to care for the children of Mr. Banks (Tomlinson), Mary Poppins has her work cut out for her. Throughout the time she spends with them, a series of shenanigans takes place with Mary Poppins and her chimney sweep companion, Bert (Dick Van Dyke).
Mary Poppins came at the bombastic tale end of the big-budget musical, ushering in the one-two punch of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. In light of this movie’s success, countless imitations would be produced of varying quality (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks). The Sherman Brothers, long-time Disney songwriters, cemented their legacy with the works sung here and if you stripped the movie of everything, the songs remain; “Feed the Birds,” “Chim-Chim-Cheree,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” are iconic songs in the Disney pantheon, and rightly so. Andrews’ melodious voice takes the songs to new heights and the various song styles are infectious and burrow deeply into your subconscious. However, the cream rises to the top and it’s exemplified by the countless songs which just fall flat. Saying there’s too many songs in a musical is irrelevant, but for every “Jolly Holiday” there’s a “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” Remember that song? Didn’t think so. The best musicals introduce their songs and provide context for them, but too often in Poppins songs are sung to fill the air.
At a hefty two-hours and nineteen minutes, Poppins’ problem is it’s way too long. The countless songs combined with an episodic plot are enough to have you wondering when the damn wind is going to send Mary Poppins on her way. The episodic plot does build towards Mr. Banks realizing his love for his children, but it comes at countless sequences embedded to inspire what? Silliness? Whimsy? There’s a great two-hour movie there if you removed the chimney sweep number (“Step in Time”). When the movie settles down to focus on Mary Poppins’ interactions with the children and her sly changing of Mr. Banks, the movie is witty and engaging. At its heart, Mary Poppins is about fatherhood – and I’ll get to the ladies in a second – and David Tomlinson is the unsung hero of the group. He starts out as the curmudgeonly British father-he’s so archetypal he even works in a bank-but as the film progresses you understand his reasons. Sure, Bert has to spoon-feed he audience what you need to know about Mr. Banks; no one looks out for Mr. Banks and he’s constantly afraid of failing his children. The issue is this explanation is unnecessary because Tomlinson acts out all the necessary emotions. When his son gives him the tuppence at the end, the wave of love and admiration washes over Tomlinson and the audience. His character develops and changes when you’re not even looking. It’s the reason why the ending works so well, because Mary Poppins realizes she’s done what she set out to do and no one noticed. So when she leaves without the children saying goodbye, she is bound to Mr. Banks for an instant.
The domesticity and home life is where Mary Poppins finds its humanity, which only frustrates the audience when moments of silliness or confusion ensue. Mary Poppins comes off as a soundtrack looking for a movie at times. The chalk-painting sequence has beautiful animation, but does nothing except introduce Bert and perform the two iconic songs of the film. The fact that animation never returns again, seems to imply the script had no idea how to inject the songs into the movie and thus wrote a scene simply for them. (Travers’ herself was against the use of animation in the movie.) Dick Van Dyke’s appearance also seems culled from another movie. His character serves no purpose. There’s a slight, neigh imperceptible, flirtation with Mary Poppins, but his character is given a lot of weight in this movie. His songs are fun, but they contribute to the unbalanced tone of the movie, and his dual-role as Mr. Banks boss is a hammy self-indulgence which only serves to remind the audience “This is for kids. Look how silly!” He’s also given the moment to redeem Mr. Banks, a role which should go to Mary Poppins. After the “Step in Time” number, Bert is just aimlessly hanging out in the Banks house when Mr. Banks unburdens his soul to the man. Bert, using reverse psychology, ends up making Mr. Banks realizes his children are important and will soon grow up. Why isn’t Mary Poppins delivering this knowledge? She has been raising his children after all? It’s a missed opportunity to band Mr. Banks and Mary Poppins together, especially considering they’re the two most important characters in the film!
Could it have something to do with the roles of women in this movie? You knew it was coming. Mary Poppins is the practically perfect picture of domesticity, but her moment to be on equal footing with Mr. Banks, and impart the wisdom he so desperately needs to hear, is given to a man? On top of that, there’s Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns). She’s a stock feminist in every shape and form; a woman who’s only interested in “the cause” because it gives her something to do. She has no relationship with her children, and it’s attributed directly to her need for female suffrage. When she takes off her women voters sash to use it as the kite’s tail by story’s end, the audience is given hope that Mrs. Banks will give up her silly notions of suffrage to stay at home and be the mother she should be. With second-wave feminism starting earlier in the year of this film’s release, it seems Disney is perpetuating the model of femininity which would carry over into his animated movies (and that Frozen seems to be shattering).
In the end, Mary Poppins is good but is far from practically perfect. The prodigious runtime coupled with an episodic plot brimming with fat to be trimmed leaves the audience hankering for more character development. The vacillating tone between childhood silliness and adult situations never coalesces and it’s to the detriment of fantastic performances by Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson. And you thought I was going to bitch about Van Dyke’s accent?