Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Mary Poppins: Gold Classic Collection (1964)
Studio Line: Disney - It's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee") and Best Visual Effects, Disney's musical masterpiece Mary Poppins has formed an unbreakable bond with audiences of all generations!

In her star-making performance, Julie Andrews plays the lovable nanny who flies out of the windy London skies and into the home of a no-nonsense banker and his two mischievous children. Hoping to bridge the gap between them, "practically perfect" Mary Poppins magically turns every chore into a game and every day into a whimsical adventure, including an unforgettable rooftop dance with a carefree chimney sweep named Bert (Dick Van Dyke).

Filled with spellbinding effects and many wondrous, endearing moments -- how else could you possibly describe this timeless treat but "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"!

Director: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Reta Shaw, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber
Academy Awards: Won for Best Actress-Julie Andrews; Best Special Visual Effects; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score-Richard and Robert Sherman; Best Song-"Chim Chim Cher-ee". Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Sound; Best Music-Irwin Kostal, 1965.
Box Office: Gross: $102.3 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1; audio English DD 5.1, French & Spanish Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 24 chapters; rated G; 139 min.; $29.99; street date 7/5/00.
Supplements: The Making Of Mary Poppins; "Hollywood Goes To A World Premiere"; Mary Poppins Trivia Game; Original Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Book - P.L. Travers | Music soundtrack - Various Artists | Disney's Jolly Holiday Mary Poppins Doll

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B/C+

Despite my affection for Disney films, I hadn't intended to check out Mary Poppins on DVD. That's because my interests are largely limited to the studio's animated offerings; I enjoyed their live-action pictures such as Freaky Friday and The Apple Dumpling Gang when I was a kid, but I maintained no continued interest in those films as an adult.

MP straddles the live-action and animated categories since it does feature some significant cartoon segments, but it remains much more firmly in the former category. I suppose it seems somewhat illogical that I enjoy Disney's animated films but dislike their live-action counterparts, as both cover many similar topics; a lot of them stick to fantasy kinds of stories, so why would I like one but not the other?

The answer stems partially from the fact I'm just plain screwy, but I think it's also because a lot of the live-action films just seem cheap and somewhat crude. They lack the artistry and the sophistication of many Disney animated movies and clearly have never been regarded as anything "special" in the eyes of the studio.

Those factors should recede in the case of Mary Poppins, which unquestionably stands as the jewel of the Disney live-action films. It wasn't the first, but it was the most successful and the most ambitious, at least until Who Framed Roger Rabbit arrived 24 years later. MP was the first Disney film of any sort to be nominated for Best Picture (fully-animated movies would have to wait until 1991's Beauty and the Beast for their initial - and so far only - recognition in this category). Overall, it garnered a stunning 13 Oscar nominations that year and won five, including a prize for Julie Andrews in her motion picture debut as the title character.

That's an auspicious legacy, and one that I'm honestly not sure MP deserves. It's a fairly fun film, to be sure, but I don't think it even remotely approaches the pleasures found in even some of the lesser animated offerings; it tops a few of the weaker titles like Robin Hood or The Aristocats, but there are many more Disney animated films I'd rather watch than MP, and the list of those that are inferior to it is quite small.

To be frank, my feelings may reflect my bias against musicals. Although I loved the format as a kid, I long ago developed an antipathy toward the genre. This may seem inconsistent considering my affection for Disney's animated films, most of which indeed follow many of the constructs of the musical format. I recognize this oddity and feel the best explanation comes from the lack of human participants in the cartoon features; the inherent unrealism that comes with the system of musicals seems more acceptable in what is completely a fantasy world, as the animation makes the films devoid of any truly realistic components.

Although it turns out that MP was created in a completely fabricated environment - the whole film was shot indoors at Disney's California studios - and clearly is a product of fantasy, the fact that it features human characters who are supposed to be somewhat believable as real people takes it from the completely fictional world of cartoons and locates it in our environs; no matter how tangential this connection may be, it still exists.

Another reason why I think I can enjoy musicals as cartoons but not as live-action films stems from the fact that most animated pictures don't pour on the songs too heavily, whereas MP seems just packed with tunes. Indeed, very little plot or character development exists in the film; almost everything seems contrived as just an excuse for a lavish production number. That's great if you enjoy that kind of material, but if you don't, then you're left in the cold.

Maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon for knocking Mary Poppins, as it has been so warmly embraced by such a wide audience. To be honest, I did enjoy the film to a mild degree; I just didn't like it a whole lot. I felt the story - which has mysterious and magical nanny Mary come and set straight a dysfunctional family in early 20th century London - sacrificed too much development for the sake of the song and dance routines.

We're initially supposed to believe that the banks children - Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) - are insufferable wild things who have tormented a slew of nannies past the point of no return, but never do we get any sense of this from the kids themselves. They put up the mildest of opposition to Mary once she's on the scene, but not enough to mark them as brats, and they soon are in the palm of her hand.

The story then sort of takes on the other big problem in the household, the stiff and uninvolved father, George (David Tomlinson). He's the typical white-collar Brit so wonderfully lampooned by Monty Python, and we clearly see that his distance from the kids is a problem. Of course, it's solved by the end of the film, but what about the mother, Winifred (Glynis Johns)? She seems just as unconcerned about the children's needs and desires as is George; she's always running about promoting suffrage for women and appears perfectly content to let a staff of domestics run the household and raise her kids.

Obviously, MP won't survive on its story, so it has to live or die based on the quality of the performances and the many musical numbers. The cast fall into the positive category, as most are quite charming. I don't know if Andrews deserved an Oscar for her work in the title role, but she's fairly convincing in what must have been a tough part; not only was it her first film, but she also had to interact with a variety of special effects elements, which is always tough. (Personally, I think the work done by actors in effects-intensive movies is underrated; no one takes them seriously, so they don't recognize how difficult it must be to interact with blue screens and non-existent creatures.)

Still, while Andrews is more than solid in the role, I just don't see her work as Oscar-worthy. I suppose it is nice to see recognition given to an actress in an unusual role - something the Academy did more frequently back in the old days - but Mary often seemed like a supporting player in her own movie; so many other elements appear in this mishmash of songs and fantasy that her part felt somewhat incidental. Also, we saw absolutely no development of the role; Mary starts as an authoritarian though oddly anarchic tough chick and stays that way through the end.

Speaking of which, am I the only one who couldn't understand why everyone was so nuts about her? The whole crew of characters are simply mad about Mary, but she seems rather cold and distant most of the time; she's cute, to be sure, but she appears pretty stiff and disapproving.

In any case, the other actors are perfectly fine, with the possible exception of Dick Van Dyke as jack-of-all-trades (and de facto narrator) Bert. Van Dyke shows a wonderful physical presence in the role as he sings and dances with terrific gusto; really, he blows away Andrews' reserved presence in the many scenes they share. However, the problem of that accent remains. Many Americans have trouble discerning the accuracy of British accents, but I don't think even the most ignorant toddlers bought Van Dyke's horrible attempt at a Cockney tone. Oh my, is it terrible! The voice sounds so bad it almost ruins the character. Van Dyke's physical talents are strong enough to make him acceptable, but this seems inadequate; with a more believable accent, Bert could have been a much more captivating character.

Between the weak plot and the generally good performances, my opinion of MP would seem stuck as a draw, but the reason I ultimately found it mildly entertaining at best stems from the musical numbers. On their own, they seem decent, even for someone who dislikes the format. However, the sheer number of them overwhelmed me, as it feels like almost no time passes in the film without yet another big production number. I felt the same way as I watched Oliver!, another hugely successful musical from the era. I like MP much more than I care for that clunker, but the two share the same insane preponderance of production numbers. While these tunes clearly maintain a strong attraction for some, I don't think they should ever exist in the place of more direct exposition and character development. The story can move along through songs, but they usually don't attempt much in the way of this kind of motion; showtunes normally occur to liven up the action and give the audience what they want.

Unfortunately this means that the plot often comes to a complete standstill as the actors sing and dance. Musicals clearly work by different rules, as anything that doesn't forward the plot in a standard movie is regarded as taboo; when you see deleted scenes on DVDs, the director often states that he really liked the material itself but that it didn't advance the story so it had to go.

If musicals followed that routine, there'd be nothing left to them, so I can accept the alteration of the normal plot-driven system. However, there can be too much of a good thing, and I think MP falls into that category. I suppose fans of musical numbers will love the material in this film, and even I have to acknowledge that those scenes are well-produced. I just wish there had either been fewer of them or the ones we find took less time.

Running time seems to be the main criticism leveled at MP; 139 minutes seems rather excessive for a kids' movie. I think the length would be just fine if there was more variety within the film. As it stands, the picture does appear to drag due to all of the musical numbers.

Despite my many criticisms, I have to say that I often found Mary Poppins to be a fun and enjoyable film. It possesses enough charm and magic to make it watchable even for a bitter old man like myself. However, I honestly expected more from it than that, and while it's something I'll likely screen again someday, I don't think it even remotely competes with most of Disney's animated films, almost all of which I prefer to this movie.

The DVD: Mary Poppins appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. MP provides a disappointing picture, one that has some good points but generally seems slightly messy.

Sharpness fluctuates quite a lot. Most shots seem adequately defined, while many wider images - even those only marginally so - come across as soft and blurry. At least this fuzziness prevents the appearance of any moiré effects or jagged edges, of which I saw none. Print flaws are more problematic. They aren't pervasive but they raise their ugly heads throughout the movie. I noted speckles and spots most frequently, and some light grain appears. Surprisingly, the more effects-intensive scenes don't cause the largest problems, although I'd expected the parts that combine animation and live action to be a nightmare; they seem roughly on a par with the rest of the film, and even the most simple scenes show concerns. Flaws clear up to a degree as the movie progresses, but they remain an issue.

Colors also seem somewhat maddening. Some hues come across well, with some nicely vivid reds and yellows at times. However, at times skin tones look terribly bland, and not in a normal pale British manner; the flesh looked so yellow that I started to fear the cast all had jaundice. Many other hues seem anemic as well, with blues and greens that appear flat. Things can look pretty good at times, but the image seems inconsistent

Black levels are actually very good, with deep and rich tones; they're one of the few consistently strong points of this DVD. Shadow detail seemed fine, with images that looked appropriately opaque without excessive heaviness. Mary Poppins doesn't look terrible across the board, and much of it actually seems pretty good. However, I noticed a lot of inconsistency, so be prepared for a variety of images.

Much better is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The movie originally came with a stereo track and this remix doesn't do a lot to alter that configuration, but it works well. The soundfield seems to remain almost totally mono except for the music, which spreads very nicely to all five channels. With so many musical numbers, the songs dominate MP and the extra breadth provided from the 5.1 track helps make them even more involving. The only occasion on which I detected anything other than music from the side or rear channels occurred toward the end, when a fireworks barrage flies; the blasts and zooms did a decent job of zipping past us and even displayed some split surround usage, much to my amazement.

The quality of the music was also a strong point. The tapes definitely show their age - you won't mistake the recording for a recent one - but the songs seem acceptably bright and crisp, and some instruments present moderate bass as well. Dialogue appears slightly flat but is intelligible and clear. Effects are also a bit thin and wan but they maintain reasonable levels of accuracy and seem clean, with occasional use of the lower range as well. Ultimately, it's a pretty strong soundtrack that appears effectively despite the film's advancing age.

This "Gold Classic Collection" release of Mary Poppins actually marks its second appearance on DVD. I never saw the first one, so I can't make this statement with absolute certainty, but I have heard little reason to believe the DVDs differ much in regard to quality. The new one may have an edge in picture, though; apparently the original disc packed the whole 139-minute movie onto one layer, whereas the new one uses dual-layering.

Anyway, the only absolutely clear difference between the two DVDs relates to their supplemental features: the first had none, while this one has some. It doesn't appear to equal the extras found in the prior laserdisc releases of the film, but from what I've read, those issues weren't exactly packed with goodies, so the discrepancy seems less severe than usual.

First up is a very good little documentary called "The Making of Mary Poppins". Although it runs only 16 minutes and 25 seconds, don't let its brief length fool you; Disney have produced some strong featurettes of this sort, and they efficiently pack in more useful information than we find in many programs that run twice as long. No, we don't get a detailed description of how the film was created, but we find enough fun and compelling data to make the documentary a winner. The piece combines lots of great vintage footage plus more recent interviews clips with Van Dyke and composers the Sherman brothers. It's a nice little program that added to my enjoyment of the film.

Also fun is "Hollywood Goes to a Premiere", which offers nine minutes and 20 seconds of newsreel footage from the opening of MP. We get lots of shots from outside theater where the film will debut; these are combined with some film clips. Mostly we see stars as the enter, but we also find interviews with Van Dyke, Andrews and Walt Disney himself. It's a charming and interesting piece of history.

The DVD finishes with some of the usual "Gold Classic Collection" staples. We get the movie's original theatrical trailer plus a 16-questions trivia game about the film. Neither are anything special, but I didn't mind them.

Here it comes again: my standard comments about some of the other aspects of this and many other Disney DVDs. (If you've been down this road before, feel free to jump to the final paragraph - I don't mind!) Mary Poppins continues the questionable trend we now find on most of their product: a slew of advertisements that appear prior to the main menu. The DVD starts with the usual copyright warning, and then it launches immediately into an announcer with his usual "Coming soon to own on video and DVD..." line. We find ads for the Disney Gold Classic Collection as a whole plus promos for The Little Mermaid II, The Tigger Movie and Toy Story 2. I don't particularly mind these ads; they offer some potentially interesting information and my Panasonic players allow me to quickly and easily skip them through the "chapter skip" button.

However, many others detest these trailers; some feel that way just due to the principle of the thing, whereas others have had a trouble bypassing the commercials as easily as I could do so. It appears some DVD players have more difficulty with them than others, though I haven't heard of any concrete trends that indicate any particular models that all refuse to advance. Whether these ads are a serious negative or just a mild nuisance is up to you, but be warned that they're there. At this point, I've started to hate the stupid things just because so many of the DVDs have the same ads; this is almost the same lineup we saw three months ago on The Aristocats, and it's varied little since then. C'mon, folks - shake up the roster a bit!

A more positive feature appears on this and other Disney "Gold Classic Collection" DVDs. According to Disney, they're supporting the DVD with a 30-day money-back guarantee; if you don't like the DVD for any reason, they'll refund your cost. I have no idea how easy or difficult it'll be to do so, but I thought this made for a nice gesture.

Some drawbacks to that offer exist. For one, there's a limit of $23.49 that you can receive, so if you paid more than that, you're out of luck. Also, the forms indicate that "store cash register receipts must emanate from the same state as the consumer address." That's nuts! That excludes most of the folks who buy their DVDs online - which probably was the intention - but also may affect those who live in areas that intersect closely. For example, I live in Virginia but I work in Maryland, which is all of five miles from my apartment. If I stop by a store on the way home from work and grab a Disney title there, I'm out of luck in regard to this plan because I don't live in Maryland. What difference does it make in which state the person bought the DVD? As long as the receipt backs up the purchase, it shouldn't matter. Why complicate something intended as a public relations gesture?

An (apparently) more clear-cut positive comes from a $5 rebate that previous owners of MP can receive if they buy this DVD. If you send in your receipt and proof of purchase for the DVD with the proof of purchase from your prior copy of the film plus the certificate that comes with the DVD, you can then get $5 back from Disney.

It's recommendation time, and I feel torn. On one hand, I found Mary Poppins to offer a moderately entertaining and fun experience, and it's a film that's maintained a very strong following for many decades. On the other, it just didn't do a whole lot for me; I thought it was too long and it featured far too many musical numbers.

The DVD itself is a bit spotty. The picture itself is usually acceptable but often flawed, though the 5.1 remix sounds quite good, and the smattering of extras is pretty nice. Fans of the film who don't already own the original DVD release will likely be fairly happy with this disc; it's not the definitive MP but it's a decent package nonetheless. Anyone less sure of their opinion of the movie should rent it first; you may well like it more than I do, but it's best to give it a test run before you commit to it.

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