DVD Review: Mary Poppins (1964) -- 45th Anniversary 2-Disc Edition

Read the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray Review

Just a Disc-Full of Sugar
"Helps the Medicine Go Down...
In the Most Delightful Way"
January 27, 2009

Previous Version
(40th Anniversary Edition)


The thing about film and especially cinema studies is that on the surface, we're led to believe that a film like Mary Poppins which-- much like its lead character and the actress embodying her (Julie Andrews) is "practically perfect in every way"-- just all came together "spit-spot," with a "step in time" to create one of Walt Disney's personal favorite works.

And thanks to that quintessential Disney magic, it's hard to imagine anything less than perfection involved but it's fascinating to dig deeper and realize the tremendous amount of effort that went into creating something truly "supercalifragilisticexpealidocious."

Poppins is after all the only film Walt Disney was personally involved in to receive a Best Picture nomination and the first studio release to hit DVD format (not to mention one of the longest "in print" titles on video).

Yet when you begin researching the title as a film scholar, you gain appreciation on a whole different level when you realize the decades of work involved in making such a spectacular musical and thanks to this unbelievably thorough set, anyone can become a budding Disney historical super-sleuth.

To begin, I must confess that Mary Poppins is a film that's grown on me over the years. As a child-- I remember being mesmerized by certain sequences such as the animated leap Mary and Bert take with the children into the sidewalk drawing of musical adventure but didn't have the patience for the lengthy film.

But upon viewing this gorgeous 2-disc version released to honor the 45th Anniversary of the beloved Disney favorite, I realize it's not only my favorite Julie Andrews film but one of the best musicals following the '40s, '50s and early '60s heyday.

And it's fascinating to realize what time can do for perspective as a former Disney favorite-- Sleeping Beauty-- became a bit less beautiful a few months back when I realized our leading lady said literally less than a few dozen words in the entire movie but this one, my "Sister Suffragettes" to misquote the song, is "well done" for those of us who "love to laugh."

A movie that held a special place in Walt's heart from the time his daughter, who had read the books by P.L. Travers suggested the series as possible film material more than two decades earlier but Travers proved to be an incredibly stubborn force of nature-- understandably protective of her work and worried that her character and legacy would be forever altered negatively by its cinematic interpretation.

Finally, Travers gave in twenty years later after a personal visit from Walt Disney, who graciously consented to offer her unprecedented approval on a majority of the film's decisions. However, it was this agreement that nearly made the entire feature unravel as the cast and crew recall in a candid fifty minute making-of-featurette some rather heated debates that the author disliked nearly everything they'd created. Thus, the film almost fell through once more when she waited for the thirtieth and final day to offer her consent to relent and let Walt Disney's production get started.

Its success is owed to his integral involvement and obsession with the work, along with his endless excitement over every single aspect including giving young composers Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman the opportunity of a lifetime to create one of the most instantly recognizable collections of songs in film history.

Likewise, Mary is notable for sending Disney's special effects, animation and technical departments into a frenzy with wirework, challenging choreography, and the blending of animation and live action that hearkened back to Gene Kelly in Anchor's Aweigh, the film broke new boundaries in what could and could not be done onscreen.

Most surprising to film fans was Disney's convincing Dick Van Dyke (with zero training in music or dance) that he was a natural to play the frequent scene-stealer Bert, the film has just gotten more and more impressive over the years.

But perhaps the greatest stroke of luck and find in Walt Disney live action history was in casting Julie Andrews in her first onscreen role. Ultimately, this was due to fortuitous timing as Andrews been publicly passed over by Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers) when that studio took the character of Eliza Doolittle she'd originated on Broadway in My Fair Lady to the screen and offered it to Audrey Hepburn instead.

While most actresses would've taken a break, especially considering Andrews had just given birth, she decided the best defense was offense and accepted the role that would change her career and life.

Mary garnered Andrews not only a Golden Globe award (in a memorable acceptance speech where she had the gall to thank Jack Warner for not giving her Lady which resulted in her being cast in Poppins) but an Academy Award as well in which  ironically she beat out her good friend Hepburn both times.

And following her enchanting portrayal of the magical nanny, Andrews began a film career that skyrocketed from the start as IMDb reveals that Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman immediately cast the actress for Sound of Music after appearing on-set to view rushes from Poppins.

Landing the role following a memorable performance on The Carol Burnett Show-- it seems hard to imagine to viewers today how film history would've differed had she been cast opposite Rex Harrison in the entertaining but lackluster My Fair Lady or if Disney had made the film a decade sooner when actresses like Bette Davis (!) were being considered for Poppins. 

And while luckily to the average viewer tuning in blissfully unaware it all seems quite natural, film scholars and enthusiasts find their minds working overtime when trying to decipher the possibilities, in the end just thankful that the right group of people finally managed to come together at precisely the right time.

This is especially apparent when watching Van Dyke who-- despite being endlessly labeled for his performance as one of the worst impressions of a Cockney accent ever attempted by an American actor-- is irresistibly good as Bert.

The inventive oddball who seems to have a different occupation every time we find him -- Bert's overly flirtatious relationship with Mary upset the author terribly, but the charm and command of Van Dyke's physicality is at his strongest in this film. And he's at the peak of his powers in the film's most remarkable sequence "Step in Time," which seems to go on forever as one of the most awe-inspiringly inventive bits of choreography since Gene Kelly's ballet sequence in An American in Paris.

While the film's children are adorable and it's a bit heartbreaking to realize that over the years we lost the young boy from the film at a tragically young age-- the cast and crew's observations about the wondrous experience make for wonderful DVD fodder on the packed Disc 2 from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Rounding out the features that are so plentiful there's too many to list, the disc also includes a Backstage Disney segment on the Mary Poppins Broadway musical (including an MP3 download of that show's version of "Step in Time") along with a great bonus short starring Andrews and including the voice talent of Tracey Ullman called The Cat That Looked at a King which was adapted from P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins Opens the Door. The short feature finds Andrews reprising her role and takes viewers yet another trip down animated memory lane as she steps inside one of those magical sidewalk chalk drawings.

The recipient of five Academy Awards, Poppins is given a gorgeous transfer in this widescreen DVD release that contains not only 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound but the original 2.0 theatrical mix for cinema purists such as yours truly.

And while I can't wait for it to finally arrive on Blu-ray, I'm thrilled to say the quality level (especially on an upconvert Blu-ray player) is mesmerizing and visually even more impressive than this week's other new and excellent modern-made Disney release, The Secret of the Magic Gourd.