MARY POPPINS – Blu-ray review

“Mary Poppins” stands with “The Wizard of Oz” as one of the all-time great children’s films adapted from books, and one reason is certainly the memorable music.  Richard and Robert Sherman won an Oscar for Best Original Score, which included that long and hard-to-spell word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Best Song Oscar winner “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “I Love to Laugh,” and Disney’s personal favorite, “Feed the Birds.”

“Mary Poppins” also won an Oscar for Special Visual Effects, blending traditional painted cell animation with cutting-edge audio-animatronics, stop-motion animation, reverse filming, sophisticated wire work, and sodium vapor screens (for combining live-action with cartoon characters). And those effects look oh-so-much-better on Blu-ray than I expected, given how the HD treatment exposed the live action/animation magic in “Pete’s Dragon.” Disney, whose 20-year attempt to obtain the rights to the P.L. Travers books to make a film he had promised his daughter, would have been delighted with this release. And we’re talking about someone who was hands-on throughout the process.

To get the rights, Disney had to give Travers script approval, but when she objected to the Sherman brothers songs, wanting only such period music as “Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay” and “Greensleeves,” Disney drew the line and said she had “script” but not “final draft” approval. Good thing, because the songs give the film a layer of charm on top of everything else.

Disney had seen and liked Andrews in a Broadway production of “Camelot” and offered her the chance to play Mary Poppins—a role she hesitated to accept because she was hoping to land the lead in “My Fair Lady.” Andrews went on to beat out Audrey Hepburn for Best Actress that year, and one fun bonus feature shows her at the podium thanking the man who made it all possible: Jack Warner (who turned her down for the part of Eliza Doolittle). In retrospect, Andrews was born to play Mary Poppins, just as she was made for the role of Maria in “The Sound of Music,” with its exuberant music and similar lesson that life should be full of laughter and song.

More than Eliza, Mary Poppins is a bit of a fairytale character, and that alone makes her timeless. Like Peter Pan, she flies into London circa the early 1900s when children are in need of help. In this case, the super-nanny with magical powers answers an ad placed by two mischievous children. Jane and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) have driven off every nanny so far, and their parents are too involved with work and the suffragette movement to give the children the attention they crave.

Leave it to Mary Poppins to teach them how to behave and, with the help of chimney sweep/street artist Bert (Dick Van Dyke), show them how to cut loose and enjoy life—a lesson also eventually learned by their parents, George (David Tomlinson) and Winifred (Glynis Johns). As with any “sweeping” epic or musical, some scenes go on a bit too long—like the chimneysweep dance number, which approaches 15 minutes—but the magic is maintained throughout this classic, which, like its namesake, is practically perfect in every way. Van Dyke (exaggerated Cockney accent and all) and Andrews have great chemistry together, but it’s really her interaction with the children and the magic of the story and the visual effects that charm audiences.

Between “Old Yeller” (1957) and “The Shaggy D.A.,” Robert Stevenson directed 13 pictures for Disney, including “The Love Bug” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” a 1971 musical that tried unsuccessfully to recapture the “Mary Poppins” magic. But if anything, “Bedknobs” just proved that you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice. Even 40 years later, “Mary Poppins” stands alone as something of a phenomenon, and while Stevenson didn’t win an Oscar for his work, he had to take pleasure in the film’s 13 nominations and five wins, including Best Special Visual Effects and Best Film Editing.

“Mary Poppins” has a runtime of 139 minutes and, rated G, is as wholesome as it gets.

Video:
I never cared much for the hokey robin-on-Mary’s-finger duet, but in HD that scene and the two-shots with Poppins and her animated umbrella really illustrate just how good the digital restoration and transfer is. Predictably the grain is heavier in fog and cloud scenes, and in action segments as well. But the grain we get throughout the film is pleasingly minimal compared to the DVD, and the edge delineation is so strong that it creates a 3D effect in many scenes. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer appears to be a good one too, preserving the rich colors and strong black levels that allow us to pick up detail in the chimney sweep rooftop dance. “Mary Poppins” is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

Audio:
The featured audio is a rich and full-sounding English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that features bright treble and mid-tones and active rear speakers that help to capture the mood of the extended fantasy scenes. But the audio system really snaps to attention when the Sherman brothers’ songs are showcased. I personally would have liked more of a bass presence, but it’s a good audio soundtrack for home theaters. Purists can fall back on the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that’s offered here as well, with additional audio options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.

Extras:
Most of the bonus features from the 40th Anniversary DVD are included here, along with a new 14-minute interview feature with Richard Sherman and actor Jason Schwartzman, who played Sherman in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Otherwise, apart from “Mary-Oke” (a Poppins karaoke option) what’s here is what was already produced the release 10 years ago.

We get original trailers and TV spots; a “Magical Musical Reunion” (17 min.) featuring Andrew, Van Dyke, and Richard Sherman; short clips on make-up and movie magic;  and “Disney on Broadway” (55 min. for two features).

An additional 50-minute “making of” feature is well done, but the gem among the extras is a cartoon short adapted from another story by P. J. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, in which Andrews and two new children jump into another chalk painting and encounter a king obsessed with questions and answers. In other extras, Richard Sherman sits at the piano and plays the deleted song “Chimpanzoo” while storyboards tell where it would have fit in the narrative, and Van Dyke and Andrews join the composer for a reminiscence that starts out awkwardly but builds to some warm moments and insights. There’s an audio commentary  by Andrews and Van Dyke, with comments from Dotrice and the Shermans spliced in. And that there’s plenty of footage showing how all the magic was created. Parents will appreciate the Van Dyke make-up test and extensive restored footage from the World Premier and Premier Party, as well as “deconstruction” of several scenes from the movie, were ported over for this release.

Bottom line:
When you witness Walt Disney attending his first World Premiere since “Snow White” and learn how he spent 20 years trying to buy the rights to make “Mary Poppins,” you can’t help but realize how important this film was to him. Now time has shown that it’s become almost as important to audiences. In his review of the 40th Anniversary Edition, John J. Puccio wrote, “I suspect that only confirmed old grumps fail to like ‘Mary Poppins,’” and he’s probably right. If you have any kid left in you at all, it’s hard not to like this 1964 fantasy.

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