You, my faithful readers, may think it is easy to write about the great films. That the prose should just flow when talking about the masterpieces. Unfortunately I have found the reverse to be true. I sit there and stare at the screen and think ‘how do I capture how great this greatness is?’ Such has been my dilemma in writing about arguably the greatest family film ever made- Mary Poppins. That is probably why this article is a day late. I just couldn’t get it done!
Make no mistake Mary Poppins is, as the title character says, ‘practically perfect in every way’. I could go on about Julie Andrews and her nuanced and delightful Oscar winning performance. I could talk about the amazing Sherman Brothers songs and the choreography by Marc Breaux. I could talk about the amazing adaptation from PL Travers rather forgettable novel. The live action/animation hybrid scenes are sublime (I mean we have dancing penguins for goodness sakes). The list goes on.
All of those things are perfection but what I want to talk about is what Mary Poppins says about life and particularly work. I have always been fascinated by films about work as aside from sleep it is what occupies most of our time here on earth. How much to work? When are we over-working? How do you balance family and work? These are all issues that modern families face and they are all a critical part of what makes Mary Poppins great.
One of the very first characters we meet in Mary Poppins is Mr Banks played brilliantly by David Tomlinson. He is convinced he is leading the best kind of life, that he has it all figured out. He says “It’s six-o-three and the heirs to my dominion are scrubbed and tubbed and adequately fed. And so I’ll pat them on the head and send them off to bed. Ah lordly is the life I lead.”
The interesting thing is at this very moment the children have run away. This is a good example of how out of touch he truly is with his family. The mother is not much better. She has turned her fervor for the Suffragette movement into a distraction from her children.
This leads us to one of the major themes of Mary Poppins. Something good (hard work and political activism) has become a bad thing when it hurts our children or other loved ones.
When she arrives Mary Poppins see’s this as the major problem at the Banks household. Everything that she does then is meant to cheer up the kids and show them the nobility of their father’s ways while on the other hand showing their father what he is missing in his children. Bert tells Mr Banks when he is grieving over the loss of his seemingly perfect life “you’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone. Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve. All too soon they’ve up and grown and then they’ve flown and it’s too late for you to give”
The two main sequences that allow for this moment to work are when Mary convinces Mr Banks to take the kids to work with him. Then she sings to them about the lady who lives to feed the birds. This is implanting in the children a different way of life than their father leads. She is inviting them to challenge their father, which they then do, causing a run on the bank. I don’t think there was any way to get through to Mr Banks without it coming from his place of employment.
After getting the advice from Bert, Mr Banks makes his pilgrimage back to his employment and he finally gets it. He finally see’s what is important and that is when we end with the family united all ready to go fly a kite.
This might make the film sound gloomy, which of course it isn’t. It’s just got such heart and soul to it that the humor is added perfection. You have Ed Wynn who is so good singing I Love to Laugh. You have Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which is a riot. You have the great chemistry between Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews singing Jolly Holiday, and the busy choreography of Step in Time.
The characters, even the children, are complex and well written. The charm is off the charts. Everything holds up to me in Mary Poppins. In fact, it’s central themes may be more important now than ever before. No wonder it was such an important film for Walt Disney himself to get off the ground just a few years before his passing. It is his crowning achievement and one of my all-time favorite movies. I hope you enjoy it with your family and that it is a Spoonful of Sugar for your family!