Review of Mary Poppins (1964)

Moving picture, 139 minutes

Seen in 2019.

In this muscial, a part-time chimney sweep and a witch rekindle a banker’s childish sense of whimsy.

Dick Van Dyke flubs his British English and does a poor job as the elder banker. There are several songs about tuppence for some ghastly reason. Some of the live-action special-effects work is bad, especially the mechanical robins. The animated segments are just the usual goofy Disney farm-animal anthropomorphism, by the numbers, with failed eyeline matches between 2D and 3D killing the most basic verisimilitude. There is very little beauty here, apart from Julie Andrews herself and Poppins’ occasionally unselfconscious fashion choices.

The ethos is heavy on wishful thinking as a challenge against utilitarianism, or abstraction, or capitalism, or whatever evil the bank is supposed to represent. It’s clear why this appeals to children but there’s not much in it for adults. The secondary didactic message, that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, is undermined by the use of magic to clean up the nursery and by the various drawbacks of incentivization or bribery as a means of manipulating people. Obviously, the writers don’t want you to think about these things. It’s not a movie for thinkers. It’s fabulism.

As of 2019, Mary Poppins is still acceptable to public morality. The mother’s feminist zeal makes her a negligent parent and the stated reason why the insane neighbour repeatedly fires his cannon into the crowd of chimney sweeps is that he views them as aggressive Hottentots, i.e. stereotypically evil black natives, in a film with an all-white cast. The 2018 sequel raised some voices about this sacred cow, but less than I would have thought.

References here: Fantasy with and without consistency, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Hogfather (1996).

moving picture fiction