MARY POPPINS - DVD review

I suspect that only confirmed old grumps fail to like Mary Poppins, and even they may be impressed by the image and sound qualities of this new DVD issue.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"Speaking of names, I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith."

"Really? What's the name of his other leg?"

It was appropriate that among the Disney studio's first DVD releases was the timeless, 1964 fantasy classic, "Mary Poppins." Based on the popular children's stories by P.L. Travers, the "Mary Poppins" musical follows the adventures of a fantastical nanny, her two young wards, their neglectful father, their suffragette mother, and a carefree chimney sweep named Bert. The movie transforms the children's books into charming fare that has entertained children of all ages for four decades. This new, two-disc, 40th Anniversary Special Edition makes a fitting tribute to an enchanting film.

The setting is London, 1910. It's a mystical, sentimental London of a past that could only exist inside a Hollywood movie, and in this case inside a Hollywood movie studio, because as was the case with "The Wizard of Oz," "Mary Poppins" was shot entirely on a sound stage--parks, streets, neighborhoods, and all.

Julie Andrews stars as Mary Poppins, the nanny of invincible convictions and magical accomplishments. She's everyone's favorite nursemaid and the envy of every wizard around. Ms. Andrews had, as we know, been overlooked for the film role of Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 movie production of "My Fair Lady," a part she had made famous on stage, so her triumph in "Mary Poppins" the same year was a fitting consolation, as was her triumph in "The Sound of Music" a year later. According to the accompanying documentary, the books' author, Ms. Travers, was on the set making sure the Poppins character was everything the author intended her to be. Poppins was to be firm, for example, but never rude.

Complementing Ms. Andrews is Dick Van Dyke as Bert, the chimney sweep, sidewalk artist, and old friend of Mary Poppins. The American actor emulated an English dialect for the movie that Monty Python's Michael Palin said delighted his children no end growing up because they had never heard such an odd accent before. Van Dyke is a pleasure, getting to sing and dance as well as be charming and humorous. What's more, he also gets to play the grumpy old bank president, Mr. Dawes, to telling effect.

Along with Andrews and Van Dyke are a supporting cast to die for. The children Mary Poppins is hired to oversee, Jane and Michael Banks, are played with refreshing good cheer and innocence by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber. Their father, the staid and upright George Banks, who is more involved in his work than he is in his children, is played by David Tomlinson. His wife, Winifred, who is more involved in her fight for women's rights, is played by Glynis Johns. Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw play the household help.

Then there are the real old-timers in the cast. Elsa Lanchester, "The Bride of Frankenstein," plays Katie, the first, flustered nanny we see leave the Banks home. Arthur Treacher, everyone's favorite butler in the thirties, including the indomitable Jeeves, plays Jones, a friendly constable. Reginald Owen, who had been a character actor in movies since 1911, plays Admiral Boom, whose cannon marks the time so accurately even Greenwich sets its clock by it. Stage and screen star Ed Wynn (father of Keenan Wynn) plays Uncle Albert in what I've always thought was one of the funniest and most-enchanting scenes ever filmed, the tea party on the ceiling.

And perhaps most touching of all, Jane Darwell plays the Bird Woman. Ms. Darwell is the lady who had been in practically every movie Hollywood ever made from 1913 until her death in 1967. She was already in her sixties when she played Ma Joad in John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath," and that was in 1940! Darwell was Walt Disney's personal choice for the role, and "Mary Poppins" would mark her final screen appearance, a fitting conclusion to a lifetime's work.

Among the many tunes to be enjoyed by songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman are "Sister Suffragette," "The Life I Lead," "The Perfect Nanny," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Stay Awake," "I Love To Laugh," "Feed the Birds," "The Fidelity Fiduciary Bank," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Step in Time," and "Let's Go Fly a Kite." Why have so few children's films, or so few adult musicals for that matter, produced tunes so good as these?

The movie was directed by one of Disney's favorite directors of the time, Robert Stevenson, who was responsible for many of the studio's live-action hits like "The Absent-Minded Professor," "Son of Flubber," "That Darn Cat," "The Love Bug," and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." I thought he kept a couple of sequences in "Poppins" going a bit longer than was necessary--the park scenes and the rooftop chimney-sweep dances--but for the most part he keeps the action moving at a healthy clip, nicely interspersing song, dance, dialogue, laughter, and sentiment.

Of course, it's always best to think of a character like Mary Poppins as a real-life, flesh-and-blood fantasy figure, but one can't help seeing her as a subject of metaphor as well. She represents all the pleasure and happiness that derive from sharing goodness and fostering responsible parenting. She becomes a symbol of virtue triumphing over petty greed, neglect, and self-absorption. So the movie works on a variety of levels, all of them a joy.

I must admit I've not been a big fan of children's movies since I was a kid, but there are still a few that never fail to entertain me. "The Wizard of Oz," "Willy Wonka," a few of the classic Disney animations, and "Mary Poppins" easily fall into this category. It's good company, indeed.

Video:
Almost everything about this new DVD incarnation of the movie is better than it was on the first "Mary Poppins" disc I reviewed some years ago. The transfer, measuring a ratio approximately 1.74:1 across my standard-screen HD television, is anamorphic, it's mastered to THX specifications, and it uses a higher bit rate than before. Therefore, the colors are deeper and more solid, and the detail is more revealing than ever. Definition is good, although not as sharp as I've seen on a few other DVDs, plus a touch hard, and there is some minor grain in darker areas of the screen; but these may be imperfections inherent to the original print.

Interestingly, minor defects that were less noticeable in the earlier transfer show up more tellingly now that the image has been sharpened up. For instance, in the live-action/animation sequence in the park, the minute halos around the live characters are more visible in a few scenes, where the actors were superimposed against the animated backgrounds. It's not particularly objectionable, but it does show that technology hasn't yet answered all of our questions.

Audio:
On their first two DVDs of the movie, Disney was guilty of some slight overkill in their Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the score. They have carried that over to the new disc, where the regular DD 5.1 sound is wide spread but has sometimes a little too much information funneled into the rear channels, most discernible in big musical production numbers. No matter. As I said last time, it may not be entirely realistic, but it adds to the fun of the proceedings.

The more important item here, though, is Disney's new enhanced home-theater mix. Like the home-theater mixes the studio provides on its "Lion King" and "Aladdin" DVDs, the home-theater mix on "Poppins" spreads the sound out among the various speakers even more than in the regular mix, sometimes making individual voices seem a bit wider than they should be. The mid-to-upper bass has also been increased a fraction, and overall volume seems a tad louder. Disney claims the new mix brings out the special audio effects better and clarifies some of the dialogue.

This enhanced mix is probably even more unrealistic than the regular DD 5.1 mix, losing some of the former's more accurate directionality, especially in the front speakers, and exaggerating many of the aural effects; however, it continues to be good fun, warmer overall and more enveloping. The whole listening area comes to life with musical sounds, some of the orchestral parts often in the sides and rear, but I suppose since the movie is a fantasy, anyway, some small price in overall musical coherence is of little consequence.

Extras:
On Disney's first DVD of "Mary Poppins," the one I originally reviewed so long ago, there were virtually no extras, just a widescreen presentation of the movie, a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and a chapter search. Disney's second "Poppins" DVD release contained a few bonus items, but it still wasn't much. Now, they've made up for all that by finally issuing a two-disc "Poppins" DVD set worthy of the movie.

Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of the film; the two Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, regular and enhanced; an all-new audio commentary with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke; "Disney's Song Selection" (with or without on-screen lyrics); "Poppins Pop-Up Fun Facts"; and twenty-four scene selections. The first disc concludes with Sneak Peeks at seven other Disney titles; and a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests. The spoken language choices are English, French, and Spanish, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two contains quite a lot of things. First, there's a seventeen-minute "Magical Music Reunion," wherein Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and composer Richard Sherman gather around the piano and reminisce about making the film. They talk about the origins of the songs, the set designs, the dance numbers, and the special effects, ending up with the three of them singing together. Then, there's a never-before-heard deleted song, "Chimpanzoo," that's delightfully sung by its writer, Mr. Sherman. Following that is a twenty-minute "Musical Journey With Richard Sherman" that provides even more backstage information and fun.

The highlight of the extras, however, is a newly made, fifty-minute documentary, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins." It's quite comprehensive, to say the least. Then, there's "Movie Magic," seven minutes of special effects; "I Love To Laugh," a set-top game; "Deconstruction of a Scene": thirteen minutes on "Jolly Holiday" and four minutes on "Step in Time"; a minute on Dick Van Dyke's makeup test; twenty-three minutes on the movie's 1964 gala world première; four separate still galleries; several theatrical trailers and teasers; and, finally, an all-new, seven-minute animated adventure hosted by Julie Andrews, "The Cat That Looked At A King," from "Mary Poppins Opens The Door" by P.L. Travers.

The two discs come housed in a slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a colorful, cardboard, silver-foil slipcover with an opening front. Inside, you'll find an informational insert containing a list of scene selections and a guide to the set's many extras.

Parting Thoughts:
This particular movie has special significance for me. Not only do I think it's Disney's best live-action film to date, but it was the very first film I ever reviewed for DVD Town. Martin Blythe, then a VP at Disney, sent it to me, for which I thank him; and Henning Molbaek, DVD Town's editor and owner, published it, for which I thank him. That was a number of years and over a thousand movie reviews ago.

I suspect that only confirmed old grumps fail to like "Mary Poppins," and even they may be impressed by the image and sound qualities of this new DVD issue. The story is a joy from beginning to end, the actors are outstanding in every department, the songs are memorable enough to have you whistling them for days (more like years) afterward, and the general production values are first-class all the way.

"Mary Poppins" is definitely worth popping for.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
7
Extras
9
Film Value
10