There's a weird history surrounding the Walt Disney company's history with live-action cinema. Although it has recently come back into prominence with big hits like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, live-action Disney films have been hit and miss for half a century, with many of them just becoming downright tacky by the '70s. You'll need four hands to count all of your favorite animated Disney movies, but you could probably list your favorite live-action films with a few fingers. Perhaps it's because of this mixed output that 1964's Mary Poppins remains the cream of Disney's live-action crop (although it certainly doesn't hurt), but do yourself a favor and revisit it again. Mary Poppins is the greatest live-action movie that bears Disney's name because it's a masterpiece through and through.
Like many great films, Mary Poppins is imperfect and some of it just doesn't work, but these rough edges lend the film its distinct and weird personality. It doesn't feel made for mass consumption, with its silly, simple story casually ambling along without a care for structure or actual plot. Despite being produced/micromanaged by one of film history's greatest corporate masterminds, the finished movie feels like it was made with care and passion. There is love in every frame of this movie, even if the road to making it left plenty of metaphorical blood shed all over the place (as depicted in the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks).
It's a story that everyone thinks they know. Two poorly behaved children meet their new nanny, the "practically perfect in every way" Mary Poppins (the stunning Julie Andrews), who takes them on a series of magical adventures and makes them into good kids. But that's not what Mary Poppins is about at all. In one of the film's greatest slight-of-hand tricks, the film plays very differently for its two audiences. Kids can enjoy a whimsical adventure and their parents will enjoy a fairy tale that's also a moving look at taking responsibility as a parent and the importance of not wasting the precious time you're given with your children. Mary Poppins only achieves true greatness beyond its colorful technique in the moving final act, where Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson, the film's secret weapon) loses his job, realizes that he doesn't care and rushes home to see his kids, removing Mary Poppins' reason to be there in the first place. It's an ending that could seem melancholy on paper (the Banks children don't even get a chance to say good-bye), but she's fulfilled her purpose: the Banks family is reunited and happy. A nanny is temporary but a father and a mother are forever.
Of course, the journey to that final point is colorful and joyous (and honestly, a touch overlong). There is no villain to face and no evil plot to fight. We simply tag along with Mary, the Banks kids and the lovable jack-of-all-trades/vagrant Burt (Dick Van Dyke and his infamously awful accent) as they embark on magical, impossible adventures. It's in these adventures that director Robert Stevenson captures a truly unique tone, balancing the broad humor and quick characterization of Disney's animated output with the scope and technical polish of a '60s Hollywood production. With the arrival of television, movies had to get bigger and grander to steal audiences back, resulting in epics with unmatched scope. Mary Poppins may not have the opulence of a family production like The Sound of Music, but it does look and feel utterly unique. Few live-action Disney movies feel tonally in line with the company's animated masterpieces, but Mary Poppins does. The fact that this tone lives on in a film this bombastically large, expensive and technically impressive makes it a one-of-a-kind production.
And then there are the songs by the Sherman brothers, a collection of uplifting, beautiful and iconic pieces that elevate what's already an impressive fantasy into one of the most memorable musicals ever made. It's hard to even think about this movie without humming "A Spoonful of Sugar" or "Let's Go Fly a Kite," but it's the quieter songs like "Stay Awake" and "Feed the Birds" that resonate after resisting the film. Mr. Banks' journey in the final act gives the movie its heart, but the music gives it its soul.
At its best, the Disney name has always been about telling simple stories with remarkable (and even deep) themes that would appeal to both the kids and the adults in the audience. It's a balance they achieved countless times (and continue to achieve) in animation, but Mary Poppins remains one of the only times they've captured that undiluted magic in a live action format. Every frame of this beautiful, charming and gentle movie is a joy. Even when it starts dragging in the middle, you can't blame anyone for not cutting another frame. As Disney buys the Star Wars, Marvel and Indiana Jones franchises, it will undoubtedly make bigger films... but it won't make anything better than this.
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