Some pinnacles are the stuff of achievement—others, geometry. Mary Poppins exists at the intersection of two ascended lines, the Disney cartoon and the Technicolor musical, neither of which would reach very much higher heights after the mid 1960s. One of the great pioneers in animation, Walt Disney was justly celebrated by the moviegoers of middle America as well as “head” types like Sergei Eisenstein, but American animation went into severe doldrums following his death in 1966. (The decline of Termite Terrace’s work, across town, indicated that the problem was industry mutation, not just the death of a father.) The big-box musical, on a parallel track, was experiencing a bubble that would pop, in agonizing slow motion, across the early 1970s, as the vicious cycle of bigger budgets, trickier technology, and dwindling attendance figures contributed to a hemorrhaging profit margin.
Julie Andrews’s loveliness as Mary Poppins aside, her Oscar win seems in retrospect like just another whatzit to line the shelves of this whimsical, no-expense-spared curiosity shop of a movie. While she would do her most potent work on screen for her then-future husband, director-writer Blake Edwards, especially in Victor/Victoria, the largest part of Andrews’s performance in Mary Poppins comes from managing or reacting to a magnificent array of special effects. Even more so than Emma Thompson in the more gently macabre Nanny McPhee, Andrews is practically a supporting player with her name above the title.
As a supposedly unimpeachable classic, Mary Poppins is the sort of family viewing room staple that’s often the victim of some at-home editing, fast-forwarding to get to the “best bits,” namely: the three iconic musical numbers, the animated interlude, and some other assorted business. Does anyone remember the whole subplot with the run on the bank, and the fate of Mr. Banks, that takes up a third of the running time? What about the suffragette Mrs. Banks, who has several production numbers of her own? The deadest spot in the film’s center, narratively, is the visit to laugh-aholic Uncle Albert, though it’s unlikely that kids won’t still be wowed by the floating-in-air f/x work.
Apart from its lasting impact on kid’s movies, adaptations, and animation/live-action hybrids, Mary Poppins figures prominently in Uncle Walt’s legacy, not unlike his twin theme parks. About as preachy as a spoonful of sugar, yet hardly encouraging romper-room hedonism, triangulating the film’s message around making Mr. Banks a better dad also seems to miss the point. The movie, like a day at Disney World, pulls the viewer through an incessant, nigh-claustrophobic landscape of surrealism and fun. Resistance is futile; the sugar is the medicine. Maybe Andrews deserved the Oscar after all: Her perfectly pitched sense of refinement—walking the tightrope between encouraging silliness and holding it in check—would help even a stuffy, nonagenarian bank president feel more like a kid at play than the parent of that kid, dragging his feet through Magic Kingdom.
Pristine...to a fault: Disney’s Blu-ray for Mary Poppins looks antiseptic, more like the inside of a bank than a magical nanny’s carryall. There’s a vague, corpse-like paleness to much of the image. No demerits for sound, which is crisp and never less than completely intelligible, even during the film’s many moments of high chaos.
The Disney classic has been pushed to DVD several times by the Mouse House, so it’s no shock that many of its sturdier supplemental features are carried over into this combo release. These include an unmissable audio commentary with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, lyricists Richard and Robert Sherman, and Karen Dotrice, and several longish featurettes covering all the major points of context: stage to screen, special effects and animation, as well as music, music, and more music. Supplemental supplements for the HD era include a 15-minute chat between Richard Sherman and actor Jason Schwartzman, who plays one half of the songwriting duo (Robert passed away in 2012) in the 2013 Disney feature Saving Mr. Banks. The shrewdness of tying a certified Hollywood classic with the same studio’s contemporary efforts to self-mythologize may get your back up, if the featurette’s two subjects weren’t so darn charming. There’s also eight minutes of karaoke. Do with that knowledge as you will.
Old wine, new bottle—a staple of Mr. and Mrs. America’s home-video library graduates effortlessly into the HD era, with a couple of new supplements.