Practically perfect? Not quite. Mary Poppins stands as one of the shining jewels in Walt Disney’s crown, and considering the recent release of Saving Mr. Banks, you’d expect the company to throw everything and the kitchen sink at its new 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the film. Instead, you can see the signs of cutting corners. It’s not a bad rendition of the movie, but if you own any previous copies, the added benefits are rather thin. Hit the jump for my full review.
None of the complaints extend to the film itself, which remains an unadulterated joy from beginning to end. Disney famously pursued author P.L. Travers for decades to earn the rights to her popular children’s book, and while Travers was reportedly less than pleased with the results, the rest of the world had no such qualms. The story comes well-oiled with songs from the legendary Sherman Brothers, bursting with charm and toe-tapping energy that renders the most cynical nay-sayer mute. The production design is colorful and eye-popping without overwhelming us, epitomizing Disney’s late-era live action pictures in a way that no subsequent production could match. The narrative is saccharine in the best possible way, as Travers’ magical nanny arrives to save the overwhelmed Banks family from their own self-inflicted disasters, and takes all of Edwardian London along for the ride.
It all reflects Disney’s standard ethos: sunny-side up and with hardly an unpleasant hiccup in the entire running time. Aside from Mr. Banks’ curmudgeonly demeanor (and a sacking that feels more blessing than curse), the whole thing resembles a romp in the park. It would be devastating for less assured films, but here, it becomes an ideal way to escape your troubles for a few hours.
And then there’s the lead.
Julie Andrews was a cinematic unknown when she took the role, most noted at the time for losing her signature Broadway part to Audrey Hepburn. She responded with a performance for the ages: pert, charming, slightly disapproving, but with a matriarchal twinkle in her eye that suggested that this nanny really does know best. She was the complete package — irresistible from the get-go — and time has failed to deliver the slightest blemish to her practical perfection.
Her charms buoy the rest of the cast, left swimming in her wake but none the worse the wear for the experience. Even Dick Van Dyke, famously castigated for his atrocious Cockney accent, overcomes our doubts with sheer enthusiasm. As Bert, Mary Poppins’ best buddy and perhaps the only one privy to her special kind of magic, he makes an appealing master of ceremonies for our largely trouble-free trip. The remainder of the performers gamey follow his example, and while the film’s energy levels remain sky-high, their bracing good cheer keeps all the smiles from becoming oppressive.
That secret weapon makes Mary Poppins the ultimate expression of Disney’s designated brand. You can’t argue it being too sugary or overly optimistic because that’s its primary selling point. It completes its appointed task with nary a sour note, helping brighten even the gloomiest days and putting a swing in the step of anyone in need of a lift. Those not inclined to such pleasures certainly have no shortage of warnings, and for the rest of us, any opportunity to take another look at it is an opportunity well-spent.
Sadly, the new Blu-ray, while respectable in many ways, can’t quite match the quality of its primary subject. The image quality is very grainy, and while color balance is superb, the benefits of high definition are all but lost on huge chunks of the film. The sound does better, though since it’s an older movie and they’re preserving its original soundtrack, don’t expect the multi-channel subtleties that you’d get in a more modern production. There’s plenty of extra features here, though only two of them are brand-new: an interesting (if self-serving) conversation between Richard Sherman and Jason Schwartzman (who played him in Saving Mr. Banks), and a karaoke sing-along feature that lets you croon to some of the film’s immortal songs. The rest of the features all come from previous editions, though they’re pretty thorough and haven’t left anything out. They include a brilliant audio commentary from Andrews, Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice (who played Mrs. Banks) and the Sherman brothers; a documentary on the development of the recent Mary Poppins stage musical; 12 making-of featurettes (with a special emphasis on the shorts); and a 2004 short film featuring Andrews and combining live action with animation.