Combustible Celluloid
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With: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn, Reta Shaw, Arthur Malet, Jane Darwell, James Logan, Don Barclay, Alma Lawton, Marjorie Eaton, Marjorie Bennett
Written by: Don Da Gradi, Bill Walsh, based on books by P.L. Travers
Directed by: Robert Stevenson
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 139
Date: 08/27/1964

Mary Poppins (1964)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Chimney Crickets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At her most startlingly beautiful here, Julie Andrews does not play the chipper, loving nanny people might expect or remember. She carefully layers a distantly dangerous and even spooky side to her character, similar to Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka role five years later. The story is about super-nanny Mary Poppins (Andrews), who turns up to take care of a young girl and her younger brother in turn-of-the-century England.

Though she remains stoic and chilly, her daily routine includes all kinds of magic, from jumping into a cartoon land to riding a puff of smoke over the city's rooftops. Those two sequences have the mark of different cinematographers: the bright colors of the cartoon world clash severely with the brooding, soot-filled orange twilight on the rooftops, but it works.

The film only bogs down during Dick Van Dyke's exaggerated performance, as a cockney chimney sweep, and Mary's friend. The songs slow things down further; they're often decent songs in themselves, but they lack the placement or momentum to keep the pace up. (A strangely placed one about an old lady and her birds is visually extraordinary and oddly moving.)

Director Robert Stevenson was a stalwart member of the Disney stable, but he often included bits of darkness in his Disney films, such as in the excellent Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Mary Poppins broke through the barrier for Disney and became a racehorse that couldn't lose. It was, for a time, the biggest moneymaker in the studio's history. It even won five Oscars (including a Best Actress for Andrews), and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, in the same year that George Cukor's behemoth My Fair Lady swept away everything else. Astonishingly, it runs two hours and 19 minutes, which is far longer than usual Disney attempts, and a serious strain on most attention spans. But that running time allowed for richer character development than is usual in a Disney film. Even the standard villain, the stern father of the two lovable tykes (David Tomlinson), slowly becomes human over a period of time.

Disney's two-disc 45th Anniversary Special Edition DVD comes with many of the extras already included in the 40th Anniversary Edition: it includes a digitally re-mastered version of the film with an optional commentary track (Andrews, Van Dyke, actress Karen Dotrice and composers Richard and Robert Sherman), plus direct access to the songs. The film also has a pop-up trivia option. Disc two contains a deleted song, a featurette about the music, games, and more. One new item is a featurette about the Mary Poppins Broadway play. Perhaps most interestingly, there's a new animated cartoon with Julie Andrews.

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