So back when I reviewed The Wizard of Oz – another film I’d previously seen as a child – I was surprised that there were several scenes I had totally forgotten about towards the beginning. With Mary Poppins I had the exact opposite reaction – “boy, they are jumping right in with the songs and magic and everything right away, aren’t they?”
By all reports, author P. L. Travers resisted Walt Disney’s efforts to make this film for years, and the songs and animation were exactly the reason why. Travers was very protective of her magic nanny (played here by Julie Andrews) who’s turned up to care for the young Banks children, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber); Travers had based her depiction of Mary Poppins on people who’d cared for her as a child, and she’d feared Disney would shave off some of Mary’s strictness – a trait which Travers felt did her own family a world of good. She was also afraid Disney wouldn’t get that Mary was there more for the benefit of Jane and Michael’s father, a workaholic banker named George (David Tomlinson). But mainly she was dead-set against the idea of Mary cavorting about with animated characters and singing goofy Disney-studio-penned songs.
And…ultimately she lost that battle. I have actually read Travers’ book, and book Mary is very different – a good deal stricter and unfussy, still magic but much more practical. Book Mary would never dance with chimney sweeps on rooftops or let a chimneysweep like Bert (Dick Van Dyke) serenade her, with or without a backing chorus of penguins.
But I got the sense that this wasn’t so much about Mary Poppins anyway as it was an excuse for Disney to do a British music hall revue. The songs and dancing are front and center right from the first, when we meet Bert cavorting about on a sidewalk in a one-man band getup. And the next song comes just moments later, followed rapid-fire by a second, a third, a fourth…at one point I actually tried tracking how many minutes Disney was giving us between songs. And there ain’t much.
Fortunately there are many good songs in here – Bert’s ode to the life of chimneysweeps, “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”, won the Oscar for Best Song, but there’s also rollicking singalongs like “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and “Step In Time” and “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, ballads and lullabyes like “Feed The Birds” and “Stay Awake”. There are so many songs thrown at you that it’s totally understandable that you forget the weaker ones (I never liked the “I Love to Laugh” scene, not even as a kid; the whole moment where a disapproving Mary demonstrates some different ways people laugh always felt forced).
Surprisingly, this rewatch made me feel like Bert is the real hero in this film. He introduces us to Mary Poppins, he does most of the elaborate dancing – and crucially, he is the one who finally gets through to George Banks about mending his ways. Mary has been bamboozling him and shaking things up, trying to snap him out of his rut, but Bert has the man-to-man talk with him that helps him connect the dots and realize he’s being a jerk.
That felt true of the performances as well. Mary Poppins is held up as the Platonian Ideal of everything – and don’t get me wrong, Julie Andrews is a fine singer and dancer. But Dick Van Dyke blew me away. Yes, his “Cockney” accent is broad enough to sail the QE-2 through and isn’t authentic in the slightest, but – my God can that man ever dance.
In fact, let me show you something. Here’s a clip from when the Kennedy Center did a tribute to Dick Van Dyke last year, with an ensemble into doing their own version of the “Step In Time” number.
They’re all fine… but the actual “Step In Time” number is bigger, faster, more energetic, more….everything. Even if you ignore the special effects and focus just on the dancing.
So, yes – it’s a jolly holiday with you, Dick.