By the end of Mary Poppins, it’s easy to mistake its warmth for simplicity. As moving as it is, it’s basic as all hell: two hours and 20 minutes just build up to George Banks learning a lesson and embracing his family. But this redemption only works because Mr Banks is cold, and the theme throughout is laughter, delivered via some of the most sublime madness ever stuffed into a Hollywood blockbuster.
Where most films would save their technical wizardry for the finale as a dazzling trump card, Mary Poppins actually frontloads. After blowing away 20 nannies, our hero emerges, slides up the banister, and promptly plunges into a bedroom-cleaning marvel. As if fantastic wire-work, chaotic stop-motion puppetry and trick photography weren’t enough, we’re then led into an actual cartoon world for 20 minutes. After all this, sequences like Uncle Albert’s levitation and even the spectacular ‘Step in Time’ dance almost pale.
It’s important that the film does this; we need to understand early on, and in full, just what Mary Poppins represents, so that the rest of the Banks’ story can make sense. So it is that, rather than just being told there can be fun in anything, we’re pulled into the magical potential of a bedroom, a chalk picture, and even a simple 14-syllable word.
Mary Poppins may protest “I have no intention of making a spectacle of myself,” but spectacle is exactly what follows her everywhere. Seriously, the list of things that take your breath away on her first day at work can go on forever: the Sherman brothers’ songwriting, Irwin Kostler’s arrangements and the cast’s singing are all top-notch; then there’s the background matte work, the groundbreaking visual effects, the infectious choreography, the clever editing, and so many other wildly imaginative, technically amazing, elements. Director Robert Stevenson and his multi-Oscar-winning team seem to pull out every technique possible just to enchant us.
By the film’s halfway point we can deeply feel what George alone seems to be lacking: enchantment. In the same way that we, the audience, are positively overdosed with dopamine, something has come over the Banks household. As the man himself asks, “Cook, singing? What’s wrong with her?” And as he becomes sterner and more standoffish with his young children, the grounds for his crushing personal defeat at the bank are laid.
It is on Mary Poppins’ second day with the Bankses that we meet Uncle Albert, who loves to laugh, and that Jane and Michael learn the virtues of helping others. George has been rattled by his household’s infusion of entertainment, so he gives Mary Poppins a good talking-to; she responds by sending the kids to the bank with him, to “feel the thrill of totting up a balanced book”.
Part two of her plan? Teach the children about feeding the birds, in a song the Sherman brothers, as well as Disney himself, considered Poppins‘ key. With all these elements carefully introduced, the film’s second part moves its comedic sense from spectacle to empathy – both crucial elements of the good-naturedness Mary Poppins is teaching.
This is how George precipitates his own breakdown. It’s not enough to obsess over “tradition, discipline and rules,” he then tries to quash his son’s desire to be charitable. Another stroke of genius: both ‘Feed the Birds’ and ‘Federal Fiduciary Bank’ rest on the idea that “all it takes” is tuppence – the dichotomy here is between the “sense of conquest” one receives from a small bank investment and the simple, caring gladness (all words in the song) that comes with feeding the birds. Here, spectacle and empathy are the same; they both rest on connecting with something beautiful. (I mean, for goodness’ sake, the film briefly fools us into thinking pigeons are a good thing.) George has failed on both fronts, and has forced his children into something they don’t want.
As George meets Bert and gets some bittersweet advice – “You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone” – he starts to realise that this farrago at the bank is his own comeuppance, not his children’s fault. And so it is that the pieces of the film come together: as he takes the tuppence, the memory of the Bird Lady, the “man with a wooden leg named Smith” and, of course, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to the bank, he finally catches up with the other characters, and with us. And in the film’s final moments, just 10 minutes later, even the bankers have come around.
What a quietly profound thing to see them change their ways and embrace the joke. This is one film that doesn’t have to stand up to logical scrutiny; it’s saying, from its opening moments, that such things don’t apply here. Literally overnight, after Dawes Sr. dies from laughter, they feel a little lighter, go fly a kite and offer George a partnership. All because of this confluence of silliness and empathy – the film’s great strength. It convinces because it’s so in love with each of its characters. By the end, there are no bad guys. There is nothing insidious, no creepy Disney weirdness (the film even looks fondly on Winifred’s political activity), just basic lessons about values and outlook.
Ultimately, the simple key to Mary Poppins is the two main characters: Mary Poppins herself, and of course Bert. If she’s the Banks’ mystical guide from disunity to kite-flying, he brings the practical push to set them on their way.
He introduces the joke about Smith, which saves the day. He nudges the group towards jumping into paintings and laughing up to the ceiling. He gives Jane and Michael a lovely talking-to about what makes their father tick, and imparts some crucial wisdom to George about how his children feel. He talks straight to the audience, and even seems to direct numerous cartoon animals into aiding him in his grand life mission to make everybody laugh.
Dick Van Dyke gives one of the most naturally engaging performances in Hollywood history, accent and all, always the friendliest and kindest figure on screen without being off-putting. Julie Andrews is the perfect foil, playing Mary Poppins as cheerfully aloof, someone who can’t help but show off when asked; she is, after all, practically perfect in every way. Both seem to be living the film’s message, channelling the very essence of big-hearted entertainment. Just look at how effortlessly they sell their interactions with those penguins, for god’s sake.
In actual fact, the point of Mary Poppins and its “element of fun”, its charitable heart, is quite the reverse of what we all think it is. It’s not about leading up to George’s redemption, and using all its tremendous, playful machinations to get us there. It’s much more brazen than that. Walt Disney, for all his indefensible treatment of Pamela Travers and her work, was a man obsessed with play, or even the Surrealist ideal of the “marvellous” – smashing the real and the dreamlike together to create infinite possibilities. Mary Poppins was a professional white whale of Disney’s for years; so too had been Alice in Wonderland. (Small wonder he collaborated with Salvador Dalí in the 1940s.) This playfulness is what Poppins the film does; it creates a grand ode to what George Banks calls “plain giddy irresponsibility”. It is not leading up to George’s redemption; it is using his story as an excuse for “the most unusual things” to happen. And it really, really is rather dociousaliexpilisticfragicalirupes.