Sunday, February 17, 2013

Favorite Films: "Mary Poppins"

So often dismissed by using the phrase "a Disney movie" as an epithet, Mary Poppins surprises everyone who sees it as an adult.

How do you describe the surprises?  Everyone knows the music: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Feed the Birds, Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, Let's Go Fly a Kite -- it's a glorious score.  And of course, the performances: Dick Van Dyke's perfectly awful Cockney accent that ultimately is charming, Julie Andrews as ... well, let's start there, actually.

You likely remember Mary Poppins in much the same way you do Maria von Trapp, effusively happy, endlessly charming and optimistic.  And if that's your impression of Mary Poppins, it's reason enough alone to revisit Mary Poppins.

The film's Mary seems to be a direct relation of Gene Wilder's dangerous Willy Wonka.  There's something unsettling right under her surface, especially when it comes to dealing with other adults.  Mary doesn't suffer fools gladly, has little need for extraneous things like emotion and empathy.  She arrives at the home of a dyfunctional family in Edwardian London and her only goal is to set things straight, to show the children that an adult can be trustworthy, to prove to the adults that their parenting skills are sorely lacking.

She is not a tactful person, she's got a haughty righteousness where her bone marrow should be, and you have to wonder what she does at night, when everyone else is fast asleep.  Julie Andrews is not an actress known for edginess, but her Mary Poppins clearly has a dark side we never see.  It's a deeper performance than you remember, one for which Andrews deservedly won an Oscar.

But the entire film has a dark undercurrent to it.  Even its Oscar-winning song Chim Chim Cher-ee is written in a minor key, and offers some stark imagery ("Now as the ladder of life 'as been strung / You may think a sweep's on the bottom-most rung") amid the happiness.

For a stylized fantasy (the stage-bound sets are a marvel), Mary Poppins is tinged with a weary acceptance of the world.  The kids are unloved by their too-old, put-upon father -- who, played to perfection by David Tomlinson, at times doesn't even try to hide his rage and resentment.

As episodic as it is, the story of Mr. Banks is the film's central through-line.  It's his failure to understand his children and their needs that brings Mary into their home; it's his belief that he's failed in his life that fuels his unhappiness, transferred onto the children; and, in the film's most strikingly adult moment, it's a humiliating, abrupt dismissal from his job that drives him so deep into despair that finally, at last, he can open his eyes to the children Mary's been trying to tell him he can't ignore any longer.

Tomlinson's quiet, quivering reprise of The Life I Lead might reduce grown-ups to tears they didn't know they had, even while kids don't quite understand what's going on: "A man has dreams of walking with giants / To carve his niche in the edifice of time," he sings after he loses his job, not sure how he'll tell his wife or his children that he's failed at the thing that drove him away from them in the first place.

Likely, you know Mary Poppins from happy little clips of happy little songs -- songs that, let's face it, may not be so happy: A Spoonful of Sugar is describing how to cope with life's unhappiness, after all, and Feed the Birds is about showing kindness to, well, a homeless person.

Watch it again.

You'll find a certain masterpiece, a movie transcends your notion of what "a Disney movie" is.  It's a glorious film, one that deserves a place among the finest films ever made.

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