To say that I’ve been critical of Disney’s DVD releases in the past would be an understatement. While the studio typically gives their animated films a good solid treatment with behind-the-scenes development featurettes and deleted concepts (and almost always a deleted song), their live action movies have typically gotten the shaft with a bare bones release, maybe including the film’s trailer if we’re lucky. So how does Disney celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of their most beloved live action movies of all time? By treating it like it’s a cartoon and giving it the release it deserves.
When I was a kid, Mary Poppins was a favorite of mine. How could you resist a movie where human beings interacted with cartoons? A world where you had laughing tea parties on the ceiling, could jump into sidewalk art, and chimney sweeps danced on rooftops as fireworks blazed was something I could easily fall in love with. I probably watched the movie enough times to make my parents dread the musical numbers, especially “Supercalifragilisticexpialiadocious”. Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) herself was a figure of mystery and delight. Out of nowhere she’d appear, flying down from her perch on the clouds, to bring entertainment and joy to the lives of young Jane and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber).
Now I’m older, and it’s been many years since I took the time to watch Mary Poppins. I’m glad I took this 40th Anniversary release as an opportunity to see the movie again. As an adult, I see a whole other side to the movie, that the lessons Mary Poppins taught were just as important for the Banks’ parents (played by Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson) as they were for the children.
That’s the magic Walt Disney brought to his movies, magic the current Disney administration needs a good reminder of: movies that brought enjoyment to children while at the same time entertaining adults, and holding an underlying message for all viewing. “A Spoonful of Sugar” is about more than just medicine. I can think of more than one person who could use that message in their management techniques or general outlook in life. “Feed the Birds” is about how the simple things in life that bring us joy are what’s most important, a message all of us could use a reminder of from time to time. None of these messages are delivered with a hard hand either. If you want the message, it’s there. If you don’t, you still get enjoyable music and a fun story.
Another thing that amazed me looking back at the film is how well the special effects stand up after all this time. In a day where compositing actors into total CGI environments is commonplace, looking at the way Disney integrated his characters into a cartoon world is still breathtaking and superior to a lot of today’s effects (I’m looking in your direction Lucas). Walt Disney was a true pioneer when it came to these types of dazzling effects, and knew right away the effects wouldn’t sell the story. The effects and songs had to come naturally through the progression of the story, otherwise they detract from the film as a whole. That principle is one of the primary reasons Mary Poppins works as well as it does, even forty years later.
With a reminder of keeping a positive outlook on life, great visual effects, catchy songs, and just a fun story, Mary Poppins remains a memorable classic that’s still fun to pick up and watch. This is truly one of those movies that parents will be showing their children for decades to come, and remembering the first time they heard “Chim Chim Cher-ee”
Disney gives Mary Poppins the royal treatment with an extremely worthy DVD release full of extras that are interesting and a lot of fun to watch. The key focus of the extras is more about looking back forty years ago and remembering what making this film was like. At the time the movie was made, there wasn’t a big focus on documenting the moviemaking process, so unfortunately little material from that time is available other than raw footage from making the movie itself. That look back is still fantastic, especially since they show the best people to remember making this movie: the actors and writers themselves.
Three featurettes look behind the scenes at the making of the movie. The biggest of these is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins, which talks about the film from casting to the world premiere of the picture. Particularly interesting of note is Julie Andrews' behind the scenes struggle with not getting the role in My Fair Lady, which she had debut on broadway. Eventually Mary Poppins went on to beat My Fair Lady in the Golden Globes and Oscar awards, and included is part of Andrews acceptance speech thanking Jack Warner for making all of this possible by not casting her as Eliza Dolittle in preference of a bigger name. “A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman” goes behind the creation of the music for the movie, including a few brief glimpses of songs that were written and moved to other parts of the movie (a song for Mary Poppins called “Practically Perfect in Every Way” eventually became “Sister Suffragettes”) or moved to other movies (“The Beautiful Briny Deep” went on to be used in Bedknobs and Broomsticks). Also included is the deleted song “Chimpanzoo”, presented in it’s entirety by Richard Sherman as he beats away on an old piano while the original storyboards for the sequence are shown. It’s a catchy number, but a perfect example of a number that wouldn’t have contributed to the story, so Walt cut it. Still, it’s better then at least half of the deleted songs that are typically included with the Disney animated movies.
The third of the featurettes is a reunion of sorts. Richard Sherman sits at the piano, plinking out songs from the movie while reminiscing with Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews. Even though this reunion is brief, it’s very powerful for a Disney fan like myself. I’ve read and seen material about Walt Disney, the legend. These three talk about Walt Disney, the person. While Walt was an innovator, at the end of the day he was a sentimental person, something that’s often lost in biographies of the man. These are three people who met Walt early in their careers, and his interactions with them has affected them ever since. It’s really touching to listen to Sherman talk about Walt calling him to his office just to play “Feed the Birds” (which, according to Sherman, was Walt’s favorite song because “that’s what it’s all about”) or Andrews and Van Dyke talking about how Walt would talk them into one thing or another. It’s not only a good look back at the music of Mary Poppins, but also a look at the man responsible for it all.
An excellently done commentary track is included with the movie, edited together from several sessions with Andrews and Van Dyke, Richard Sherman and Karen Dotrice, and Robert Sherman. By editing together three different commentary tracks, it’s ensured there is no dead time on the commentary, and that all the information included is absolutely fascinating. By including such a range of players, from an actress who was nine at the time the movie was released, to Van Dyke who had already had a successful television series, to the songwriters, the track covers a wide range of perspectives on the film. We find out just how nervous Andrews was making her first film and how many of the surprises of Mary Poppins were not told to the children so their reactions would be genuine. Just when you think you have gotten all the different perspectives on the film, they drop in a voice from the past. I about dropped my gum when I heard Walt Disney speaking on the commentary track about what he expected Mary Poppins to be. Major kudos to the production team behind this commentary track, which very well might be the most well rounded and informative (while still being fun) commentary out there.
Other extras on the two disc set include a pop up trivia track for the movie, sing along presentations of the movie’s songs, and a look at several of the more effects laden scenes with some of the effects removed. This last one is particularly well done. Where many other releases would offer the scene with “angles” so you could view the raw footage or the final product, by presenting the scenes with the effects fading in and out we get a more powerful view of how they filmed certain scenes, with our attention pointed in the right direction at the right time. Finally there’s a short cartoon from another Mary Poppins story by P.L. Travers called “The Cat That Looked At A King”, narrated by Julie Andrews. It’s fun to see Andrews reciting some of the same lines she said in Mary Poppins forty years ago, and it’s a neat little tale - again, better than some of the short cartoons Disney tries to stick on some of their other DVD releases.
Just releasing a remastered version of Mary Poppins would have been what I’d expect from Disney. By giving the movie a grand treatment with loads of fun, excellently assembled extras, this movie becomes one of my favorite Disney DVD releases, practically perfect in every way.