This Christmas, the new film “Saving Mr. Banks” premieres in theaters. The movie tells the story of the long courtship between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers, whose books about a magical nanny had enchanted Walt and his children. Not coincidentally, “Mary Poppins” is finally arriving on Blu-ray this month, probably the last of Disney’s true masterpieces to make it to the high-definition format.
“Mary Poppins” was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, and won five. It’s full of jolly songs by the Sherman Brothers, beautiful scenery (courtesy of matte painter Peter Ellenshaw), and an ingenious combination of live actors and animation. Julie Andrews delivers a star-making performance in this, her first feature film, David Tomlinson displays terrific comic timing as Mr. Banks, and Dick Van Dyke, despite a shaky hold on his Cockney accent, is charming.
After coming across the books in 1938, Walt Disney tried for years to convince P.L. Travers to allow him to make “Mary Poppins” into a film, and she eventually relented, provided she were allowed to be a consultant to the production. Walt agreed, and Travers became heavily involved, from the casting of the picture, to the type of outfits Mary Poppins would wear, to the props on set, such as the tape Mary Poppins uses to “measure” Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) upon her arrival at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Much of the charm of “Mary Poppins” comes from the music. Richard Sherman and his late brother Robert wrote songs for many Disney films, and when they were assigned “Mary Poppins,” the two immediately set upon reading Travers’ books. What they found, according to Richard Sherman, was “a brilliant character and a lot of wonderful adventures,” but very little conflict and story. With their songs, the Shermans set the scene in turn-of-the century England, coming up with a basic story of a father that needs just as much rescuing as his children do.
Dozens of songs were written even before production on the film began. A song called “Practically Perfect” became “Sister Suffragette,” and an old English jig turned into “Step In Time.” That song, originally meant to last just a few minutes in the film, eventually became a 12-minute song-and-dance extravaganza. Among the songs that didn’t make it to the final print was “Chimpanzoo,” which was meant to be included during the tea party on the ceiling at Uncle Albert’s house. You can hear that song on the new Blu-ray release of “Mary Poppins.” Walt Disney’s favorite song from the film was “Feed the Birds,” which he felt to be the heart of the movie itself. The lyrics transcend the avian ream to offer a simple message of kindness:
Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you.
That idea that the message is aimed as much at the adults in the audience as the children is hinted at in the title and trailer of the new “Saving Mr. Banks,” as Travers (Emma Thompson) points out to Walt that Mary Poppins didn’t come to the Banks household to teach the children how to tidy their nursery with a snap. Their father, George Banks (Tomlinson), opens the film as a distracted dad, cheerfully singing about his precise schedule and obedient children instead of actually paying attention to them. By the end of the film, he’s learned how much his family needs him, and the whole thing ends with a soaring family kite-flying outing in the park.
If there's a complaint to be made with "Mary Poppins," it’s that it may be too long for some, especially young children. Nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes of Poppins is a lot to take in one dose, even with a spoonful of sugar. In fact, some showings of the film in England were presented with an intermission.
Disney has released "Mary Poppins" on DVD before, and prior to this Blu-ray disc, the 40th anniversary edition, released in 2004, was the definitive version. Thankfully, all of the special features from that earlier release have been carried over onto the Blu-ray disc, and there are a few additions for the new release as well.
The set includes a nearly hour-long documentary on the making of "Mary Poppins," and an entertaining audio commentary track featuring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice, and co-composer Richard Sherman.
Sherman takes center stage in three more of the features, taking the viewer through the film and plays some excerpts from some of the unused songs, sitting down at the piano for "A Magical Musical Reunion" with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (recorded in 2004), and a new feature, a conversation with actor Jason Schwartzman, who plays Sherman in the new “Saving Mr. Banks.” Sherman even gets a little emotional as he describes how seeing the new movie was like looking back in time.
Archive footage of the film's premiere at Graumann's Chinese Theatre is fun to watch, as is 16mm newsreel footage of a party thrown by Technicolor to celebrate the premiere. There are art galleries, trailers and television advertisements, and more included on the disc.
Since 1964, the Poppins magic has never stopped. Generations have grown up on “Mary Poppins” in the theater or on home video. And in December, 2004, a stage version of Disney’s “Mary Poppins” became a smash hit in London’s West End, opening to near unanimous huzzahs. Two years after that, the musical opened on Broadway, where it ran until March, 2013. The stage production adds subtle variation in the plot, and new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, because Travers, upon finally granting the stage rights to the story, apparently never wanted another American to touch her story again, as Sherman jokes good naturedly in a 40-minute documentary about the production of the stage musical on the Blu-ray, featuring the actors, songwriters, and famed producer Cameron Mackintosh.
"Mary Poppins" is truly one of Disney's greatest achievements, technically, musically, and narratively. Its theme of kindness and spending time listening to children resonates even more today in a world of smartphones, computers, satellite television, and over-scheduled kids, than it did in 1964. Go ahead, spend your tuppence on the "Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition," and spend an afternoon this month with friends and family. Go fly a kite afterward. And have a real jolly holiday!