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" A woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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Mary Poppins has more than a few spoonfuls of sugar, but it all goes down delightfully. It would be easy to dismiss this film as fluff, but behind the sweetness, Poppins is a well-crafted, entertaining film with engaging performances, good musical numbers and excellent visual effects. The special features on the 40th anniversary DVD release give an interesting look into the creative and technical processes behind the making of the film.

Supercalifragilistic

Delightful DVD mostly for the legions of adult fans
Delightful DVD mostly for the legions of adult fans

Based on the series of books by P.L. Travers, the movie is set in England of 1910. The Banks family’s latest nanny is quitting because she can’t handle the kids. Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) aren’t so bad, really. They’d like nothing better than to fly their kite in the park with their parents. But father (David Tomlinson) is devoted to his job at the bank and mother (Glynis Johns) is busy protesting with her fellow suffragettes. Then one day, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews in her film debut) floats down from a cloud after answering the children’s unconventional advertisement for a nanny. She literally blows the competition away, and the job is hers.

She and her friend, Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a street performer, chimney sweep and jack of all trades, give the kids the attention they don’t get from their preoccupied parents. Like the books, the movie is episodic, and the kids have a series of adventures with their new friends, from an afternoon inside one of Bert’s chalk drawings, to a tea party on the ceiling.

Practically Perfect in Every Way

Mary Poppins marks a high point in Disney’s family-friendly filmmaking of that era. The filmmakers so skillfully blend catchy songs and movie magic, that it’s easy to forget that the plot is so thin. The 15-minute Jolly Holiday sequence (where the characters frolic in the chalk drawing) has a seamless blend of live action and animation. The Step in Time sequence, with chimney sweeps dancing on the rooftops of London shows a mastery of the big production number that is rarely seen in Hollywood movies today. Songwriting brothers Robert and Richard Sherman prove that they can write a good catchy tune and occasionally a moving one.

Julie Andrews shines in her first movie role. There is a sweetness beneath her prim and proper facade that didn’t always come through in the books. She and Van Dyke have a good chemistry together. Van Dyke’s cheerful performance more than makes up for his thin Cockney accent. Though he was a novice dancer, he moves gracefully, and the choreography suits his lanky frame. If there is one criticism, it’s that the children in the movie aren’t given much to do but stare at the adults’ antics with wide eyes. They don’t even seem particularly beastly, as their first nanny describes them.

DVD Extras

Though a couple of the bonus features on this two-disc set will appeal to children, most of the extras are for the movie’s legions of adult fans. A 50-minute behind-the-scenes featurette on disc two gives a comprehensive look into the making of the movie. One of the more interesting facts is that there was no script when the development of the movie began. Walt Disney gave a copy of the first Mary Poppins book to songwriting the Sherman brothers and asked them to write songs based on it. They worked with storyboard artist Don DaGradi, who sketched visual concepts for the movie. It wasn’t until two years later that work on a script began. Even then, they had to contend with Travers, who was reluctant to have her book made into a movie.

The audio commentary track on disc one is above average and features Andrews, Van Dyke, Dotrice and the Sherman brothers, as well as some old recordings of Walt Disney and Irwin Kostal, the music supervisor. Andrews and Van Dyke mostly praise everyone connected with the movie. The comments of Dotrice and Richard Sherman, recorded separately, are more focused on their experiences with the making of Mary Poppins. Occasionally, a recording is played with comments by Robert Sherman, who has interesting things to say about what is going on musically and dramatically in the movie.

Of the many shorter features, the most interesting is a deconstruction of scenes. The Jolly Holiday sequence is played with cuts between the live-action filming, rough and final animation, and the finished product. For younger fans, there is The Cat that Looked at a King, a new nine-minute animated short, with Andrews in live-action bookends. It was adapted from a Mary Poppins short story.

Picture and Sound

Both the picture and sound are up to Disney’s high standards. The DVD offers a choice between listening to the movie in its original stereo mix or Disney’s enhanced home theater mix. According to the information on the DVD case, some inaudible dialogue was recovered and the sound effects were “sweetened.” The result is a richer sound than the original mix. The movie also has French and Spanish language tracks.