Extended Thoughts on ‘Mary Poppins’
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi
Starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson
I think it’s a bit dangerous to call movies classics; that title can be a heavy crown for any film to wear, whether it’s your favorite or one you’ve never heard of before. Sometimes, we consider movies classics because our parents or our siblings or our friends loved them first, and we just followed along with them. Sometimes, we consider movies classics as soon as we walk out of the theater, blown away at what we’ve just seen. And sometimes we’re told that movies are classics, not because we’ve seen them, but because film buffs and critics have deemed it that way. No matter what makes a movie a classic, I’m unable to separate that movie from its status when I watch it, if it’s something like Mary Poppins, a movie I haven’t revisited in many years.
Mary Poppins is possibly the most quintessential film from Walt Disney Pictures you could find. If you were—and bear with me here—the first human to make contact with aliens who had a passing awareness of what it meant to be a human as well as, perhaps, what it meant to be from North America, this would be the movie you’d show the extraterrestrial visitors if you wanted to clue them in on what pure, distilled Walt Disney is. Though it’s not fully animated, there’s an extended sequence where live actors interact with animated characters. There are plenty of songs, some more memorable than others. The story includes children and adults learning lessons about themselves after being instructed by a magical guide or two. Everyone improves, there’s smiles, hugs, tears, fun, and a distinctly nostalgic sense of the past. The only counterargument I think could be made against Mary Poppins is that it’s not set in America. Otherwise, to look at the quality and type of cinema Walt Disney wanted to create while he was alive, you need look no further than Mary Poppins.
To me, the film has somewhat earned its iconic status. For introducing most of the world to Julie Andrews, as well as for the songs by the Sherman brothers, Mary Poppins is iconic. The rest of the film—and at 140 minutes, there’s more of it than you might think or remember—doesn’t hold up so well to scrutiny. The performances are the first problem, outside of Andrews and David Tomlinson, who plays the patriarch whose family is changed for the better after the title character pushes them all to be better people. Andrews and Tomlinson are excellent in the film, because they bring an understated power to their key, yet distinctly different, roles. Everyone else in the film suffers as a result of graduating from the Jon Lovitz School of ACTING! From Ed Wynn to Dick Van Dyke to Reginald Owen to Hermione Baddeley, each performer treats the film’s set as if it’s the stage to the largest venue on Broadway or the West End.
And listen, playing to the back row isn’t a bad thing. Certainly, these performers aren’t the first to commit that sin and they are definitely not the last, within the world of Disney or outside of it. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch such broad acting for two-plus hours. The real issue here is consistency. Andrews, who was making her big debut here after years on the stage, knows exactly how big or small to play each scene. Here’s an actress who Walt Disney was taking a chance on, someone who movie mogul Jack Warner thought wouldn’t be enough of a star to headline his film adaptation of My Fair Lady (in a role that she originated on Broadway). And she never had a problem with going too broad. How is she—and how is David Tomlinson—able to skirt this problem while the rest of the cast picks up the unnecessary slack?
If everyone acted at the same pitch, I’d have an issue with the style but it also wouldn’t be so damn pronounced. The problem goes to the very top, with Dick Van Dyke as Bert, jack-of-all-trades (read: homeless person) who has some unexplained connection with Mary. Bert and Mary are apparently just platonic, good friends, but his fawning over her makes you wonder if the film would be a bit more interesting if their relationship had more spice—Disney-sized spice, that is—than what we’re given. Van Dyke’s performance, though, is a major issue. He’s playing a British character, and no amount of alcohol or drugs could convince you that it’s realistic to any region of the United Kingdom at any time in history. Let’s not mince words—Van Dyke’s accent is awful. It’s atrocious, and yet it’s almost a badge of honor to the people who love the film. To me, it’s as embarrassing as the hippie humor in The Love Bug, another film from Robert Stevenson, Bill Walsh, and Don DaGradi, who directed, wrote, and produced this film, too.
I know what you’re thinking, reader. You’re thinking what some folks have pointed out to me on Twitter: this is a movie about a woman who floats down from the sky on an umbrella that talks to her through the head of a parrot. This is a movie where people literally dance with animated characters. This is not cinema verite. It’s not a harshly realistic tale about struggle and strife in 1910 England. Why am I looking for realism in a film that is patently rejecting the very notion? What I’m looking for in this film, as I am in any film or story, is consistency. Keep the world of the film consistent. If you’re going to have a fantastical, childlike version of England, fine. But cast that world with people who actually sound like they’re English, and make sure some of those people don’t overact like they’re being forced to under penalty of death.
The reality I expect from any movie is the reality the movie creates. I like fantasy as much as I like reality, but even in the world of fantasy, there has to be logic. Fantasy worlds that create rules as the stories taking place in them go along don’t work out too well. The most insane worlds, with very few exceptions, have some rules behind them. Sometimes, the rules are as simple as making sure the inhabitants don’t stick out like sore thumbs. I know, of course, that grousing about Dick Van Dyke’s accent in this film has become old hat, but I’ll be honest: I hadn’t seen this movie in a few years and was struck once again at how singularly bad he is in the film.
It’s not for a lack of trying, though; unlike some other actors, Van Dyke is fiercely committed to making the performance work. In that respect, and that respect only, I’m reminded of the painful performance that Pierce Brosnan gave in Mamma Mia! (Yes, again, bear with me.) Brosnan is a charismatic actor, but he couldn’t hold a tune if his life depended on it. As you watch him sing ABBA standards throughout that movie, though, it’s as if you can see his thought process: I can’t sing. I am a terrible singer. What am I doing here? Geez, I need to try as hard as I can. Maybe if I do that, I’ll sing decently. This was not the case, sadly, and I wonder if Dick Van Dyke was thinking along the same lines: I’m not English. I have a terrible dialect coach, too, so I don’t think my accent’s any good. Maybe if I try real hard, nobody will notice.
Van Dyke aside—and though his accent is atrocious, his singing and dancing do their best to make up for it—Mary Poppins is enjoyable almost in spite of itself. Though the film is probably 20 minutes too long, the lead performances from Andrews and Tomlinson are moving precisely because of how little pandering the performers do. Some of the script was problematic, especially in how the matriarch of the troubled family doesn’t have to change her personality despite being, clearly, a bad mother. But there is, I admit, something infectious about watching this movie. The peak of the film comes early, in that hybrid of live action and animation. As you watch Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke gleefully sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” with a brass band behind them, it’s hard not to tap your foot along the tune and smile at Andrews, who’s glowing right back at you. In its kitchen-sink, anything-for-a-laugh mentality, Mary Poppins gets an A for effort and a B for execution.