Blu-ray Review: Mary Poppins (50th Anniversary Edition)

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You can’t hear the song titles without immediately getting the tunes stuck in your head for the rest of the day. “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Step in Time,” and of course "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" are among the most-recognized and best-loved songs ever to grace the silver screen. The movie their featured in is 1964’s Mary Poppins. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has issued a refurbished Blu-ray edition to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary (which is technically next August). This treasured musical/comedy/fantasy launched the film career of star Julie Andrews (it was her big screen debut) with a Best Actress Oscar. A total of 13 nominations (including nods for Best Picture and Director, Robert Stevenson) and five wins helped cement its status as a timeless classic.

Assessing Poppins’ value today depends in part on how well one can divorce himself from the powerful pull of nostalgia. So many millions of viewers have grown up with the film holding a particularly cherished place in their childhood, it can be easy to simply overlook any weak aspects. Honestly though, as an energetic, inventive, and brilliantly tuneful extravaganza, Mary Poppins holds up perfectly well after five decades and will likely continue to delight new fans for generations to come. Andrews is spot-on as the prim, proper, and magical nanny who answers the advertisement placed by the Banks children, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber).

Mary Poppins dick van dyke (380x228).jpgTheir father, George Banks (David Tomlinson), is an uptight banker; a chauvinist and stern father. Tomlinson is extremely effective in what is often an overlooked performance, given the dominance of Mary and her friend, Bert (Dick Van Dyke). We see Bert fill many positions throughout the film, first as a one-man band, then as a sidewalk chalk artist, and most famously as a chimney sweep. Van Dyke very nearly steals the entire show from Andrews, displaying boundless physical energy and an infamous Cockney accent (it’s bad, yes, but not nearly enough so to cancel out all the enjoyable elements of his performance). Van Dyke’s Bert is also essential for preventing Poppins from being a “girl’s movie,” giving boys someone to relate to (and even possibly be inspired by). Van Dyke’s range extends well past the amiable Bert, as he also does double-duty as the elderly Mr. Dawes Sr., George Banks’ boss at the bank.

Once Mary floats in on her parasol, there’s not much plot to speak of—certainly a minor point of valid criticism for a film that runs about two hours and 20 minutes. But the kaleidoscopic and sometimes surreal path Mary leads the Banks children down is so varied and charming, it’s a forgivable issue. The highlight must certainly be the sequence in which Mary, Bert, and the kids literally jump into one of Bert’s sidewalk drawings. We’re treated to some of the most intricate effects work in the film (which is liberally peppered with Oscar-winning special effects) as our heroes’ journey through an animated landscape. Eventually we get back on a firm narrative track as the true purpose of Mary’s visit becomes clear. She wants to see Mr. Banks bond with his children. They’ve had an extremely distant relationship, exasperated by a disastrous trip Banks makes with his kids to his place of employment. It all leads to a wonderfully-realized bittersweet ending.

Mary Poppins david tomlinson (380x226).jpgAnd again, you can’t overstate the importance of the music, from the instrumental overture to the closing credits theme. The instrumental score was composed by Irwin Kostal, while the songs were co-written by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. For those who haven’t seen Poppins in a while, prepare to be delighted by even the less-remembered tunes, like Andrews’ lovely lullaby “Stay Awake” and Tomlinson’s rendition of “The Life I Lead.”

Great care has apparently gone into the high definition debut of Mary Poppins, with a remastered 1080p image and DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix. It must always be kept in mind that Poppins was distinguished by complex visual effects. Practically every special effect available at the time was thrown into the mix. All the multi-layered optical effects resulted in imperfections that are emphasized in high definition. Disney has done the right thing here, retaining all the variable grain inherent in the original, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Edward Colman. Just be prepared: there’s a lot of grain in some shots, to the point where clarity and detail are hopelessly compromised at times. But again, this is a result of the way Poppins was produced. The source elements used in the transfer were obviously remarkably clean and free of damage.

Mary Poppins carousel (380x273).jpgAs for the soundtrack, a 7.1 expansion wasn’t really necessary for an older film with as simple of sound design as Poppins. But as quiet as the surround channels remain during the non-musical sequences, there are no problems to report. The songs sound terrific, as does the dialogue. And although LFE activity is rather limited, be prepared for a good jolt every time Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen) fires off another of his twice-daily cannonballs.

The only brand new supplements are the 14-minute “Becoming Mr. Sherman” featurette and a karaoke feature called “Mary-Oke.” The former is basically a promotional tie-in with the upcoming theatrical release Saving Mr. Banks. That film’s co-star Jason Schwarztman chats with original Poppins songwriter Richard M. Sherman (whose writing partner and brother, Robert, passed away in 2012). The “Mary-Oke” function, while nothing too exciting, is more than simply subtitles appearing over film clips. For the three songs presented, new animation has been created to spotlight the lyrics on-screen.

The rest of the many included supplements are ported over from the 40th and 45th anniversary DVD releases. There’s audio commentary with a variety of participants (including Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) that is jam-packed with interesting info and reminiscing. Featurettes are grouped under a few different banners. “Backstage Disney” collects nearly two hours of material, including the 50-minute “Making of Mary Poppins.” The best part of “Music & More” is the 17-minute "A Magical Musical Reunion,” with Andrews, Van Dyke, and Sherman. “Disney on Broadway” spotlights the stage adaptation of Poppins. We hear from several of that production’s key participants.

Despite its advancing age, the only thing really dating Mary Poppins are the limitations of its visual effects—once state-of-the-art, now a little creaky when viewed in pristine high definition. Luckily, the sheer craftsmanship and obvious joy invested in this, the most famous of Walt Disney’s live-action productions, make it an obvious must-own.

Note: Stills photos displayed here are for promotional purposes only and do not represented the 1080p transfer contained on the Blu-ray.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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