Like its title character, Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way: its cast, its beautifully balanced blend of comedy and drama, its costuming and sets, and the catchy tunes by the Sherman Brothers. It’s a kids movie that runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, but also one that flies by, never dragging and never flagging once for its whole time. It’s a marvelous gem of a movie, and one that absolutely deserves every bit of hype anybody’s ever written about it.
On the surface, the movie is a trifle that’s been played out before: a neglected pair of children fall under the wing of a new caretaker, leading to greater harmony and love in all the members of the family. It’s nearly impossible to single out one element in Mary Poppins that sets it apart from other more conventional, less memorable versions of the same tale, because every element in the movie meshes together seamlessly to reinforce the others, and I doubt I will be able to add much of significance to the critical praise heaped on the movie since its release. Standing it next to more current entertainment, I’m also pleased at how analog the movie is, working its magic through optical mattes and compositing, wire work, and the yards of rigging that brings a robin to life. You simply can not get the thrill of the physicality that comes from the dancing chimney sweeps in the “Step in Time” number near the end of the movie, and there is a delightful charm to the extended visit to an animated English countryside even if it makes the human characters stand out in sharp relief.
The irresistible Julie Andrews plays the title character, taking a role that could easily have turned saccharine and making it magical by committing 200% to the part and adding just a touch of lemon to add just a bit of cheeky tartness. It is a true star performance, and her near-complete command of the screen through sheer magnetic charisma makes it hard to believe it was her feature film debut. It’s only a “near-complete” command because she shares the screen with Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, a street savvy jack-of-all-trades who’s a loosey-goosey bundle of divinely inspired physical comedy — a dynamo in perpetual motion that’s quite capable of putting a smile onto the sourest face. There are very few cinematic moments more sublime than watching Dick Van Dyke tap-dance with a quartet of penguins.
I haven’t revisited the film in a long time, but in this latest viewing, I’m struck by how well the two complement each other. In addition to the genuine warmth between them that radiates off the screen, Mary Poppins is an image of poised porcelain perfection while Bert is an image of flailing, perpetual near-failure just one missed step away from falling flat on his face. He is completely silly while she is perpetually staid, but there are dashes of seriousness in his demeanor just as Mary Poppins shows the occasional flash of impish humor. It’s enough to make me wonder how these two knew each other, as the movie makes clear they do. Was Bert once a child under Mary Poppins’ care? Or was he perhaps the Mr. Banks in that relationship?
Along those lines, it’s David Tomlinson’s performance as Mr. Banks that was the most revelatory this time around. As my colleague JerryvonKramer pointed out five years ago in reviewing the 45th Anniversary DVD, Banks is the one who really grows and changes from Mary Poppins’ influence, and really the only character with a significant character development arc from start to finish. I don’t know that I’d call him the hero of the movie, but I do see him in a much different light as an adult than I did as a child. In fact, this time around, I’m finding that the children are probably the weakest element in the movie. They don’t really change much as the film goes on, and despite the stories of the movie crew withholding certain surprises to get genuine reactions from them, there are a lot of moments where their goggle-eyed incredulity seems too affected. The fact that Mary Poppins can continue to yield up different little treasures no matter where you are in life is only one of many reasons why the film is justly termed a classic.
Mary Poppins the movie is a masterpiece, but unfortunately Mary Poppins the Blu-ray is a bit of a disappointment. The high-definition video is only a small an improvement over the DVD master that’s been in circulation for 10 years. The Blu-ray is definitely sharper than the older DVDs and marginally brighter, and I’m happy to note that the movie retains some of the film grain that’s often erased in their animated Blu-ray re-masters. However, it the improvements are still relatively small, especially when compared to the best of the animated remastering jobs. While many of the classic animated films were subject to thorough cleaning and color-consistency fixes, Mary Poppins seems darker than I remember it and still suffers a bit from inconsistent colors. During the animated countryside scene, Bert’s striped jacket and the fox he rescues from a hunt will change color between scenes, sometimes quite noticeably. It’s not a bad upgrade to high-definition, but still one that seems to have non-trivial room for improvement. The audio is fine, adding a new 7.1 DTS-HD soundtrack along with all the others available on earlier DVD releases (a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, a 2.0 Dolby stereo closer to the original release, and assorted 2.0 foreign language tracks). I don’t have the equipment to properly evaluate the 7.1 soundtrack, but what I can get is noticeably better than the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks on the earlier DVDs.
The bonus features on this release are also a bit of a good news/bad news joke. The bad news is that this release has little new to offer from earlier home video releases. While the 45th Anniversary release seemed oriented around promoting the Mary Poppins stage musical, this release seems oriented around promoting the movie Saving Mr. Banks, which promises the behind-the-scenes story of making this movie. The only substantial new feature is a 20-minute conversation between co-songwriter Richard Sherman and actor Jason Schwartzman, who plays Richard Sherman in Saving Mr. Banks. Sherman is still an affable, endearing presence and even manages to work in a few new anecdotes about making Mary Poppins, but this featurette still feels less informational and more promotional. The only other new bonus feature is a “Mary-oke” sing-along feature, though I challenge anybody to actually follow the lyrics in these fast-cut music videos, where fonts change size and type repeatedly and the limited animation in the background does little but get in the way. The good news is that the remaining recycled bonuses are quite thorough and generally very good. My colleague JerryvonKramer covered them in detail in his review of the 45th Anniversary DVD, and I have but a few additions and differences. The trivia track and free MP3 download have been dropped, and though I find the animated “The Cat That Looked at a King” to be much more charming than he does, I have even less tolerance for the “Movie Magic” bonus featurette (he sat through all seven minutes; I lasted less than 30 seconds). Other than that, I am in agreement with his assessment of the bonuses, thinking that the “making of” movie and the extended conversation between Richard Sherman, Julie Andrews, and Dick Van Dyke to be the best of them. It’s worth noting that the DVD that comes in the Blu-ray combo pack is a new pressing, seemingly taken from the same high-definition master as this Blu-ray. It’s an even smaller incremental improvement from the last DVDs, but it’s definitely not the same disc in different packaging.
In closing, I find I have the same advice as what was given five years ago: if you don’t already own Mary Poppins in a home video format, this high-definition release is a complete no-brainer. If you do own either the 40th or 45th Anniversary DVD relases, the upgrade is a bit of a harder sell, since the improvement is small and there are no real new bonus features. But it is a truly marvelous movie, and if nothing else the release of the Blu-ray and Saving Mr. Banks is as good an excuse as any to revisit this classic.