Mary Poppins (40th Anniversary Edition) Review
The first Mary Poppins novel, written by P L Travers, was published in 1934 and soon found its way into the hands of Walt Disney. In 1938 he started negotiations to turn the tales into a film but his offers were only eventually accepted by Travers in the very late 1950s. Cannily, the author wanted certain concessions from the famed filmmaker, concessions that included script approval and live-action over cartoon. When these requirements were met (and the sales of the original books were falling) the deal for film rights was accepted and so one of the most popular family films in existence started its journey to the silver screen, where it was eventually released in 1964 to mass critical acclaim that is still relevant today.
And while it may seem strange to talk of a film we've probably all seen dozens of times, if you take the time out to watch it fresh, it really does deserve the accolades showered on it. The storyline itself is fairly basic and is set in the early 20th century in London. Michael (Michael Garber) and Jane Banks (Karen Dotrice) are two children in search of a loving parental figure. Their father, Mr Banks (David Tomlinson), works in a big institutional London bank and seems to find his children more of a nuisance than a joy. Their mother, Mrs Banks (Glynis Johns) is heavily involved in the suffragette movement and doesn't have time to stay home and look after her children. So the pair are foisted off on a nanny and it’s naturally a given at the start of any such tale that they are such troublesome children that no strict nanny can stay long within the household. That is, until Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) happens on the Banks' doorstep after answering an advert from the children detailing their perfect nanny. Of course, in the end Mary Poppins not only mends the family dysfunction, but she also brings a sense of magic into Jane and Michael's lives (and also to film-goers everywhere). Added to this core cast is Bert (Dick Van Dyke), jack-of-all-trades and good friend of Mary Poppins, who accompanies the children on many of their adventures and also has a part to play in restoring good familial relations.
Adventures in this film include jumping through a pavement chalk drawing into the world it represents, mixing with animated people and animals, walking the rooftops of London with smoke for a staircase and supping tea at just below ceiling level. But throughout, Mary Poppins is helping Jane and Michael learn some useful life lessons, such as kindness and compassion. The film is also well and truly a musical – apparently the first original film musical since Gigi in 1958 – and the songs that crop up throughout fit the film so well that it's hard to imagine P L Travers not approving of many of them. Ironically, in a time when stage musicals (such as Evita, Chicago and Phantom of the Opera) are being transformed for the screen, the London stage version of Mary Poppins has just received its premiere (December 15th 2004). This snippet of information only really serves once again to highlight the enduring charm and appeal of Mary Poppins to a wide audience and the strength of the songs written and composed by Robert and Richard Sherman, who won the Best Song Oscar for 'Chim Chim Cheree'.
And while we're on the subject of the Sherman brothers, their other achievements should probably be mentioned. The brothers had worked for Walt Disney since the 1960s, and stopped working exclusively for the company in 1967, shortly after Walt's death. Their major film scores include The Sword in the Stone, The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The Sherman brothers' work on Mary Poppins really is exemplary. Using the inspiration of traditional Vaudeville songs such as 'Knees Up Mother Brown', they came up with some great songs and it's a testament to their skill that so many of the Mary Poppins songs are remembered individually. These include the Oscar-winning 'Chim Chim Cheree', but also 'Feed the Birds' (Walt Disney's favourite), 'A Spoonful of Sugar', 'Jolly Holiday' and of course ' Supercalifragiliticexpialidocious'. With that kind of success behind them I'd almost be willing to forgive the fact they also created the song 'It's a Small World', which has led to much suffering in Disney theme parks (or is that just me?).
Mary Poppins was directed by Robert Stevenson (Old Yeller, The Absent-Minded Professor) and he did a remarkable job of coaxing solid performances from the entire cast, as well as keeping the mix between live-action and animation finely balanced and wholly believable within the context of a magical nanny. Lest we forget, this was Julie Andrews' first film role (she got the part after missing out on My Fair Lady) and her performance here not only won her the Best Actress Oscar, but also her role in The Sound of Music. Dick Van Dyke was also relatively new to the film world, and had never trained as a dancer – yet takes part in many of the dances in the film and acquits himself admirably... at least as far as dancing is concerned. The various technical aspects of the film all coalesce together to make a truly magical experience; it's hard to describe it in any other terms. Yes, we've since seen live-action and animation mixed with just as much skill and more modern technology, but the intricacies of the wire-work, audio animatronics, stop-motion and hand-drawn animation which were used in Mary Poppins was executed at such a high level of skill that even watching it today, 40 years on, some of the seamlessness remains.
While we're still tangentially on the subject of performances though, let's look into them a little more closely. Julie Andrews was 27 when she made Mary Poppins and it's amazing to think this was her first time on film. She has a remarkable presence and self-assurance which capture the character perfectly and it's very hard to imagine what the film would have been like with some of the other candidates for the role, such as Bette Davis or Mary Martin. Julie Andrews was starring in Camelot on Broadway when Mary Poppins was being cast, and Walt Disney made a special trip up to see her in the show, later inviting her and her husband of the time, Tony Walton, down to see him to discuss being in one of his films. Speaking of which, Tony Walton also played a pivotal role in the making of Mary Poppins, joining the team as costume designer and overall design consultant. Dick Van Dyke was partly cast in order to create a wider appeal than it was perceived an all-British cast would bring to the film. His portrayal of all of Bert's jobs and his narrative role in the film are carried off well – but of course, we can't mention him without a quick reference to his truly awful 'mockney' accent. To his credit, Van Dyke mentions this himself in the documentary included as an extra on this DVD set and cheerfully points out that a magazine voted it as one of the 'top twenty bad accents in movie history'. It really is that bad, but I forgive him for it because of the sheer joy and vigour he brings to the role. And I have to say, even being a Londoner born and bred, I don't remember it bothering me at all when I saw the film as a kid! Mind you, I did get a kick out of reading some of the other actors which were thought about for the role of Bert, not least Cary Grant, David Niven, Laurence Olivier and Tommy Steele!
David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns play the roles of the parents (Mr & Mrs Banks) and it's hard to fault their performances in these roles. They portray the stern and the scatty perfectly and again show the high quality of casting that helps to make this film stand out so strongly. The children actors, Michael Garber and Karen Dotrice, are quite cute and (more critically) non-annoying – the performances they give were often triggered by the film-makers trying to make everything actually appear magical to them, so we get some very natural child acting. For example, in 'A Spoonful of Sugar', when Mary Poppins pours the three spoons of medicine, the children had no prior knowledge that the liquid would come out three different colours – the look of sheer amazement on their faces is not only priceless, but perfect for the scene. Clever directorial trick and something which really helps the film along.
Mary Poppins won Oscars for Best Actress, Best Song, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects and a special technical award. This is still Walt Disney's single most successful night at the Oscars. It was also, at the time, Disney's most expensive film and one of the last that Walt himself got to work on. Despite the fact I could break down the technical brilliance, the skilful writing and song-composition, the great acting and the talented singers, dancers and animators involved in the project, it's actually hard to describe why this film is better than just the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s the fact the storyline is somewhere in-between simple and complex, or the fact the 'magic' used isn't over-powerful, or maybe it's the sentimental message of the film that a small kindness can go a long way and that being with family is more important than anything else. But something in me would also like to think it's because so many people were so passionate about bringing this project together and that something just clicked to make it go as smoothly as imagined. The cast and crew that talk about the film on the extras here definitely harbour a deep-seated love for the project, even 40 years after it was first released.
I'm not sure what else can be said about Mary Poppins. Even having watched this film so many times while growing up that it's become a part of my personal cultural heritage, I can honestly say when I sat down to watch it again (and to watch it with commentary and then pop-up notes subsequently), I enjoyed it each and every time in a slightly different way. It is overall still a magical experience.
Here we have an anamorphic presentation of the film at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and it's safe to say that this is the cleanest-looking transfer of Mary Poppins you've ever seen; in terms of common visual defects, it shows far fewer problems than previous versions of the film. While some rainbowing and pixelation occurs at times, overall the quality shown is remarkable for a film of this age and the tidying-up process has definitely gone very well. That’s not to say that the picture is perfect, of course – it would be hard to make that claim for any film of this era being put onto DVD. For example, I found the skin tones a little too reddish-brown for my liking (especially when compared to some of the more accurate hues illustrated by clips of the film included in the disc extras). It’s not terrible, but it did make me feel that even the live-action sections are cartoonish in some way.
OK, so now onto the ‘controversial’ aspect ratio, which I have to confess I didn’t really notice when I viewed the DVD – possibly because I don’t own any other copies of Mary Poppins. As I noted earlier, the film is offered here in 1.66:1, but contributors at the Home Theater Forum website suspect that instead of going back to the original 1.66:1 masters of the film, Disney may have ‘faked’ the original framing by cropping the image down from another print to match the correct aspect ratio. Now I’m no expert on the history of transfers of this film, so if you want to read more about it, it may be worth checking out the thread in question at the Home Theater Forum.
There are three flavours of English soundtrack available on this release of Mary Poppins: the original 2.0 mix and both 2.0 and 5.1 versions of the 'Disney Enhanced Home Theater' mix. For this review, I primarily listened to the 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix, and spot-checked the other two for comparison. (French and Spanish are also both available in 5.1 Dolby Digital on this set.)
So, about the 5.1 mix – it’s a weird Disney concoction and alas there are definite issues with it. The bass levels are very high, and this really is noticeable throughout, not just the places where it might be warranted. I didn’t detect any hiss at the volume levels I tested, but I’d almost rather have had a faint hiss and more realistic bass levels for the film. Unfortunately there are also a number of newly-recorded sound effects which have been overlaid onto the original soundtrack of the film... including a strange ‘poof’ sound when the children, Mary Poppins and Bert jump into the pavement picture, which was the most noticeable addition to my ears. That being said, all of the surround speakers do get a decent workout for this soundtrack; it’s just that it sounds a bit off from what I remembered, which was a disappointment to say the least.
The 2.0 Disney Enhanced mix definitely has less bass than the 5.1 mix and is preferable in that respect. However, it seems the original 2.0 mix is the best one to listen to while watching this R1 version of Mary Poppins. Although I only dipped into it for a half hour segment of the film for comparative purposes, I preferred it to either of the 'enhanced' soundtracks. It’s much quieter – and that’s easily fixed by adjusting the volume control on your remote – but it sounds a lot more natural in terms of dialogue and sound effects, while the actual music seems to have more life to it. Apparently, R2 versions of this 40th Anniversary Edition will have 5.1 mixes in addition to those listed, so I’d be very interested to see how those turn out.
The packaging of this DVD set is actually pretty standard. Coming in a 2-disc Amaray case – you know, the kind with the hinged flap inside for the second disc – featuring a decent picture on the front, the design is not particularly inspired. The leaflet that accompanies the DVD is a tri-fold and includes a disc index displayed as an organisational chart – just in case you lose your way while searching for special features! It also describes some of the extras in greater detail. One thing I still can't understand, however, is Disney's fondness for placing an oversized UPC barcode with proof-of-purchase cut-outs on the back of each of their DVD releases... as if anyone really wants to take a pair of scissors to the sleeve insert on their brand-new DVD.
After you first pop the DVD in, before you can get anywhere near the main menu there's a slew of Disney trailers to skip (or watch diligently, depending on your personal choice). These are also available elsewhere on the first disc, but the menus they use just for these trailers are incredibly ugly and so very different from the ones on the rest of these two discs that, frankly, I'm left to assume that the authoring team couldn't be asked to put in the extra effort and ended up doing them using Powerpoint in about 2 minutes flat.
Fortunately the core menus are fairly pleasant to look at and fit the Mary Poppins theme well, with the main menu on the first disc certainly winning out in the overall interest stakes, as it opens with an animated clip of the penguin waiters from the 'Jolly Holiday' segment of the film, one of which comes over and helpfully opens a menu of options for you, while the second disc chooses a much more straightforward approach, with just the selections plainly listed.
Of course, more important than both menus and packaging combined are the special features, which are split sensibly across the two discs. The first disc contains the extras that need to be seen with the film, while the second disc has the overall lion's share of special features. Both DVDs include a disc index which lists the features across the entire set, which I found quite useful and informative. With that said, let's take a look at the goodies on disc 1.
First off, I'll mention the somewhat unusual register your DVD text page. It lists information about all of the advantages of registering your purchase, including access to a Disc Replacement Program for damaged DVDs, the right to use Disney DVD Technical Support and the obligatory opt-in for marketing offers from Buena Vista. Of course, registering your purchase entails going to the specified website and filling in your details. I haven't actually done that at the point of writing this, so I can't comment further about the experience.
So, onto the biggest extra on the first disc and the thing I was most looking forward to: the audio commentary. The disc producers have done a marvellous job in convincing both original cast members and production staff to record commentaries for the film, and have edited these various sessions together into a reasonably coherent whole. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke provide one set of comments, as do Richard Sherman and Karen Dotrice. There's also historical clips interspersed which include radio broadcasts, recordings of Walt Disney speaking about the film, and comments from many other people involved in the production.
While it takes a little while to adapt to the sometimes fractured commentary, especially when it swaps abruptly from Julie and Dick to Karen and Richard (unfortunately scheduling conflicts meant that they weren't all able to be recorded at the same time), this commentary is a veritable treasure trove of anecdotes about the film... and the chemistry between each pair of commentators is very apparent. Moreover, listening to it is a highly engaging and interesting experience throughout – which is certainly saying something, considering the length of the film. There's definitely something a lot to be said for the genuine warmth with which everyone involved in Mary Poppins treats the subject matter, and it really does rub off on the viewer. (The only actual drawback is that Disney didn't feel it was worthwhile to provide a subtitle track for the audio commentary, so the hard of hearing will miss out on this excellent feature.)
The other major special feature on the first disc is the pop-up fun facts option, which overlays a series of little purple on-screen windows as you watch the film, each packed full of Marry Poppins background trivia and facts, notes regarding the language used in the production, and other bits and pieces of Disneyana. First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed the pop-up trivia (which in its own way is every bit as fascinating as the audio commentary, albeit somewhat less personal as it lacks identifiable narrators)... but more to the point, the team that created this feature deserves accolades for the sheer number of these notes that they have provided. (A number of DVD releases in recent years have included some sort of 'text trivia' option, but usually these take the form of subtitles which pop up only occasionally. The 'fun facts' track on this disc, on the other hand, is so overflowing with content that it would be impossible to absorb all the information that's being thrown at you if you were to simultaneously play both the trivia track and the audio commentary.)
Anyway, the pop-up trivia really add a lot of context and interest to a second (or, in my case, third) viewing of the feature. I especially enjoyed the explanations of British language and culture that were obviously inserted for the benefit of the average American viewer, like what '10 Downing Street' is… but the linguistic notes which gave me a giggle were a lot more rare than the remarks of genuine interest. Just for the record, the pop-up notes do occupy one of the DVD's subtitle tracks, so it's impossible to watch them and have the film subtitled at the same time. Another welcome extra on this disc (and one that will probably appeal greatly to kids) is music play, which lets you pick a song from a list and watch just that segment of the film with the lyrics provided on-screen as a sing-along. Of course, you can also opt to see the lyrics on-screen while watching the film from the start to finish – again, this is on a separate subtitle track, so all of these options (film subs, lyrics subs, trivia subs) are all mutually exclusive.
Finally, the disc 1 features are rounded off by sneak peeks – the aforementioned trailers from the start of the disc (Bambi: Special Edition, Pooh's Heffalump Movie, Mulan II and Princess Diaries 2) as well as ones for The Young Black Stallion, Where the Red Fern Grows and Disney Princess – a worrying advert for dress-up costumes, dolls and other merchandise relating to all of the Disney leading ladies).
The second disc, however, is where this 40th Anniversary Edition really comes into its own, feature-wise. There's a lot to get through here and it's the main reason this was a hard review to get done quickly; everything's interesting and I didn't feel any great desire to skip bits – which is always good news, as it means there isn't a lot of 'padding' in these extras. In addition, the menus here are good enough to let you know the running time for each item as you highlight it, so you can budget your time well. So, without further ado, let's look at the features! Because there are so many I'm going to switch styles and just give each one its own paragraph...
Deleted Song: Chimpanzoo (1m 32s). Richard Sherman sings a deleted song that was to accompany the children's visit to Uncle Albert, while the handwritten lyrics and production sketches of the scene are shown on screen.
A Magical Musical Reunion (17m 20s). Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Richard Sherman get together around a piano to chat about the music of Mary Poppins, including the inspiration behind some of the better-known songs.
A Musical Journey (20m 50s). Richard Sherman hosts this featurette about the music of Mary Poppins. Of particular interest are: the anecdotes about filming and the rare clips of Mary Poppins yodelling; a selection of different music accompanying the rooftop walk; the separate tracks of the pearly musicians; and the deleted songs section (yes, 'Chimpanzoo' is repeated here, with a little more context). This extra is incredibly informative and well worth watching if you're at all interested in the history of the film and the songs that make it stand out so.
I Love to Laugh Set-Top Game. Using the Uncle Albert scene as context, this is a simple trivia game where the answers to the questions are hidden in the background image and you have to highlight and select them to get Uncle Albert back down to ground level again. In all honesty, I found it a bit fiddly and some of the items really hard to make out, but obviously it's not targeted at my age group. Might be fun for kids, though.
The Cat that Looked at a King (9m 35s). Produced exclusively for this DVD, this short is animated in traditional Disney style and features the voices of Sarah Ferguson, Tracey Ullman and David Ogden Stiers. It's based on one of the original Mary Poppins stories – Mary Poppins Opens the Door – and features Julie Andrews in non-animated form. It's watchable but nothing really special story-wise. In fact, as I note down its duration I'm surprised... I'd have guessed it was only a few minutes long!
After these obvious extras which are listed clearly on the disc, I just wanted to note that the rest of the list all nestle on a sub-menu behind the descriptor Backstage Disney. It's not the clearest way to make all of these features immediately accessible, but with the map in the leaflet showing how it works and with the disc index, it's not exactly hidden either. And so, the list continues...
Supercalifragiliticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins (50m 40s). Definitely occupying that indeterminate region between the comfortable definitions of 'featurette' and 'documentary', this feature is hosted by Dick Van Dyke and includes lots of snippets from the cast and composers. There's also archival footage and discussion of how the various special effects were achieved. There's some repetition from the commentary (inevitable given that the same people contribute to both), but this is definitely to be watched – especially if you don't get around to the commentary for a while.
Movie Magic (7m 5s). Not especially interesting compared to the other extras here, this featurette seems much more targeted towards a younger audience, and plays like an elongated trailer with a fairly obnoxious voice-over. The focus is on the 'magic' of the film effects and shows how things like stop-motion animation works.
Deconstruction of a Scene: Jolly Holiday (13m). Watch the complete sequence with the image switching between the standard theatrical presentation and the raw footage without the animation, as well as several examples of the animation being added.
Deconstruction of a Scene: Step in Time (4m 50s). Watch the dance routine number of the film with and without mattes and effects as well as in its theatrical form.
Dick Van Dyke Make-Up Test (1m). Before Dick Van Dyke was allowed to take the part of Mr Dawes Sr, Walt Disney made him take a make-up test and also pay some money to an educational charity. So here's the make-up test he took, showing his transformation into an old codger.
The Gala World Premiere: The Red Carpet (17m 45s). Recently some footage came to light that shows the stars arriving and being interviewed at the premiere of Mary Poppins. Black-and-white and colour footage are cut together here to give us the best possible picture of the atmosphere outside the premiere of the film. Radio commentary recorded live at the event is also included. The integration of all the various formats is seamless and works very well to give a great insight into something most of us probably never imagined we'd ever get to see. It's not just a look at the Mary Poppins premiere, but it's also a historical insight into what happened at such events in a past age.
The Gala World Premiere: The Party (6m 25s). Similar to the red carpet segment in style and feel, but obviously after the film, so there's a lot more talk of how fantastic it was.
Publicity. Basically trailers for Mary Poppins, including the extremely dry original theatrical teaser trailer (2m 55s) and the original theatrical trailer (4m 15s). There's also TV spots and re-issue trailers and a introductory welcome from Julie Andrews which played in front of one premiere of the film and apologises for her inability to make the premiere.
Still Art Galleries. There's a really large number of pictures here and they're split into 11 categories such as 'Walt and Friends', 'Cast Photos' and 'Story Development'. While it's true that some of the categories don't have all that many images, what pictures exist are all presented nicely framed with backgrounds around the stills. I did find the navigation a bit annoying and would probably have preferred to be able to scroll through all the pictures without changing categories, but that's down to personal choice and overall this is a very nice addition to a packed selection of extras.
Mary Poppins really is that rare gem in the cinematic world – a timeless classic which appeals to all ages. It's hard to imagine or believe that it really is 40 years since the film was originally released, but this DVD package has done a wonderful job in bringing together interesting and enjoyable extras to make it deserve its 'special' status as an anniversary edition and re-release. The Disney enhanced soundtracks may not be to everybody's taste, but the original 2.0 mix is thankfully included alongside them, and the video certainly looks beautiful in terms of film quality even though there are some as yet unanswered questions about cropping and possibly saturation. That being said, I didn't find anything here that truly detracted from my enjoyment of the package and would definitely recommend it.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:43:23