Walt Disney Pictures recently released Saving Mr. Banks, an unflattering, based-on-a-true-story film about P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the stubborn, selfish author of the original Mary Poppins books, and her uncooperative ways with studio head Disney (Tom Hanks) during the pre-production phase of the 1964 movie Mary Poppins. After seeing this well-made but not wonderful film, I took the liberty of revisiting now 50-year-old classic starring Academy Award-winner Julie Andrews in her first film role and funnyman Dick Van Dyke.
While researching for this article, I was unable to find a single critic with a negative review. All the audience ratings were in the 85+ percentile as well. Throughout my viewing however, I couldn’t help but think about a few factors:
1. If the children live just down the street from the park where Bert plays his music and chalks out his drawings, then why have they never met before and now meet up everywhere?
2. Why does Bert know Mary Poppins? Has she been in this neighborhood before for other children?
3. Does Mary Poppins live on a cloud? Does she eat? Where does Bert live?
The list can go on for an entire page and I continued to ponder why the critics hadn’t ripped this movie apart. So I put the film on pause for a moment and realized what Disney was selling… MAGIC!
I put aside all my logical thoughts and accepted everything as it happened. I considered Mary Poppins to be a magician and Bert the lovely assistant. And like a good magician, Mary Poppins never reveals her tricks and tells us so straight out:
Mary Poppins: First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear.
Mr. Banks: Yes?
Mary Poppins: I never explain anything.
Director Robert Stevenson uses mystery and intrigue as early as during Bert’s one-man-band act, where he breaks from his fast-paced song to notice something is happening. He switches to a different tone and sings nonsense which causes the audience around him to look confused and have no idea what he is talking about. Bert sings his four lines to keep us hooked and not providing us with too much information, then proceeds signing his original song as if nothing happened.
In the next scene we have our first bit of fun as Mary literally blows away the competition and floats down from the sky with her opened umbrella in hand. Surely the most iconic image from the film and one of the most iconic images of all time, and it wasn’t even Julie Andrews performing but rather her stunt double.
The magic was not just on film, but on set as well. Every step of the way the young child actors (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) were kept in the dark as to how things were going to happen. Stevenson sought to inflict genuine reactions out of them instead of relying on pure acting ability. The scenes with the ahead-of-its-time animatronic singing bird, the different colored medicine pouring out onto each spoon from the same bottle, and a heavy soot-covered Bert grabbing the children as they ran away were all surprises to them. The biggest secret, however, was that Van Dyke also played the role of elderly bank officer Mr. Dawes, Sr. The excellent makeup job would have fooled me as well if I hadn’t noticed the same long dancing legs, but nevertheless, the children recalled wanting to get the scene done as quickly as possible since they were scared of the nasty old man and because they thought he could die at any moment.
In the grand scheme of things, it is the magic of a not-so-simple word planted in Mr. Banks’ head like a seed left to grow and eventually blossom when he needs it most at the end of the story to complete his character arc. This is where the magic and story structure meet to make this film work and to produce the most successful night Disney has ever had at the Oscars, with five wins out of 13 nominations.
So if you’re a logical stickler like myself, take 139 minutes to get lost in a magical movie experience and just enjoy a fine family film. Well, what are you waiting for? Spit spot.
Craig is an avid moviegoer and aspiring screenwriter with Bachelor degrees in both Cinema and English.