Why is Mary Poppins a good movie?
As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the things I’ve loved since I was a kid (superheroes, Ghostbusters, etc.) in a critical way. I was floored over the summer when Jill saw Yellow Submarine and really enjoyed it (hear us talk about it on this episode of the Shame Files Podcast). It's one of the few pieces of pop culture really important to me that I had never attempted to share with her in the past, since I am incredibly biased toward it. My attachment to Mary Poppins isn’t anywhere near as strong as Yellow Submarine, but revisiting this film before seeing the sequel coming out this week, I was struck by one question in particular: “Is Mary Poppins a good movie?”
There’s no doubt in my mind that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” I enjoyed watching my most recent viewing, and found myself often completely entranced by the film that I’ve seen a few dozen times before. I had most recently watched the beloved musical in 2013, as preparation for Saving Mr. Banks, but more as context for that film so I could remember the details more than trying to engage with Mary Poppins critically. But this time, as I watched the film, thinking about its individual pieces, I struggled to put my finger on why this film is so good. Because that’s part of what a critic needs to be able to do: not just say “thing good” or “thing bad,” but why and how is “thing” good or bad.
In some ways, Mary Poppins is a baffling film. The plot is essentially that a wealthy family hires a mysterious new nanny. She performs some (literal) magic with the children, and then leaves once their relationship with their father has seemingly been repaired. Saving Mr. Banks puts a lot of emphasis on the relationship between Poppins author P. L. Travers and her father–and in a key scene, Walt Disney and his father–as the inspiration for the story of Mary Poppins. And while that does happen in the film, there doesn’t seem to be much that Mary Poppins herself does to save Mr. Banks. It is almost entirely indirect.
Paying attention to Mr. Banks (played with wonderful self-importance by David Tomlinson) this time through, it is amazing how subtle this bright technicolor musical is when it comes to its character work. At the beginning of the film, Banks is mostly played as a joke with both his wife Winifred (Glynis Johns - the most underrated performance in the film), and Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews). Both women easily manipulate the sputtering Banks into doing what they will by convincing him their ideas are his. Seeing the stuffy Banks as the one out-of-touch with reality is really funny, especially when he later threatens to fire Poppins for making the kids too excited.
But no one ever confronts Banks about his behavior. Everyone just seems to work around him as needed. Things take a turn when Poppins suggests he take his children to the bank where he works. Michael (Matthew Garber)–acting on Poppins’ manipulation–inadvertently causes a run on the bank when he wants to give his money to the bird woman (Jane Darwell) instead. When Banks is later sacked for this, he appears to have a mental break, tells the director of the bank (Dick Van Dyke) that he doesn’t exist, gives him a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and a joke. The latter two being direct references to Poppins’ outings with the children. It appears that Mr. Banks was paying closer attention to his children than the film implies. Bert (Van Dyke) is the only one that directly suggests that Banks change his behavior, during “A Man Has Dreams” at the near-end of the film, when he uses reverse psychology to suggest that Banks’ legacy as a father is more important than his legacy in business.
Were this a 2018 film, there’s a strong possibility that I’d have a strong critique about this very turn, that the film could cut down on the extended fantasy sequence in order to devote a bit more work on the characters, but I don’t actually think any of this is really a problem when watching the film, because Mary Poppins is so charming that you really have to pause and focus on the issues in order to see any of them. Moment to moment, the film is just too good at carrying you away, with the magnificent Sherman Brothers’ songs, production design, and animation acting in chorus to create a truly mesmerizing film.
In fact, Mary Poppins is a perfect example of plot not mattering to the film. The audience feels the story more than it is communicated to them. This only seems to work with the most charming films, and approaching the material with cynicism will never allow it to work.
Because of this, Mary Poppins is the most Disney film. Not only because it was the only film Walt Disney worked on that received a Best Picture nomination (it won 5 out of 13 total nominations) and Disney’s final film passion project (after this he focused on The Florida Project, especially EPCOT), but because it best captures the feeling of being in Disneyland. This is most evident in the chalk picture sequence, depicted as a perfect English countryside, complete with adorable animals and a fair. It’s completely carefree, and everything is as it should be. Even a traditional English fox hunt is allowed to be enjoyed with a happy ending because the fox lives. Disneyland, especially the Fantasyland and Main Street USA areas allow us to enjoy an idealized version of the past, enjoying the aesthetics of nostalgia without most of the darkness. There is darkness at the edges of the Edwardian London of Mary Poppins, similar to the hints at what pirates spend most of their time doing in the original iterations of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Disneyland feels like the world as it ought to be, with most of the world’s concerns minimized. It is true escapism because it is so immersive, and probably the only thing more immersive than a cinematic experience. The legendary attention to detail present at Disney’s parks are also present in Mary Poppins, making us wish we could stroll down Cherry Tree Lane or into a screever picture, or on the smoky rooftops of London. Mary Poppins' magical presence makes sense within the world of the film, and everything else comes to reflect that present. Truly Disneyfied magical realism at its finest.