Skip to main content

Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.

Mary Poppins
(1964)

(SPOILERS) Disney’s unimpeachable – unless you were an unimpressed PL Travers – smash hit, loved by children everywhere… Although, I don’t recall that I was ever that enamoured, preferring the similarly themed, just with an overtly identified witch and even wackier animation, Bednobs and Broomsticks (1971). Indeed, Bednobs and Broomsticks was in the running to be an earlier Disney production, when the rights negotiations for Mary Poppins were looking beyond Walt’s reach. Suffice to say, I don’t think my earlier position holds up. Even for one as jaded and cynical as I undoubtedly am – most of all towards the Mouse House – Mary Poppins is an irresistible affair, blessed with great tunes, dazzling choreography, some gorgeous cinematography and delightful performances. Even the eccentrically accented one.

I didn’t mention the director there, one Robert Stevenson, who doesn’t crop up on many lists of unsung auteurs. He was a Disney mainstay for almost two decades from the end of the 1950s. At which point, he’d come from a stint directing television. Before which he’d pursued a successful film career for two decades, the highlight probably being directing Orson Welles in the 1943 Jane Eyre. Stevenson’s Disney period saw him making movies into his 70s. These included the aforementioned Bednobs and Broomsticks, as well as the likes of The Love Bug (1968), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976). So prolific was he that in 1977 Variety cited him as “the most commercially successful director in the history of films” with no less than sixteen on their all-time rentals list.

As you can see from Mary Poppins, Stevenson wasn’t particularly stylistically notable. Rather, his skill came from martialling the elements. He knew to get out of the way and let it happen, be it dance routines or effects sequences (or both together), marrying a variety of elements to appealing effect. Today, he would probably be making movies for the MCU, in a reliable but anonymous fashion. Yet Mary Poppins found him receiving his sole Best Director Academy Award nomination; the musical received the most nods of any film that year, thirteen, so beating My Fair Lady and Becket’s twelve. It had to make do with five wins, however, most illustriously Julie Andrews. Which was, at least, one in the eye for the snub of the My Fair Lady lead role; she wryly thanked Jack Warner in her acceptance speech for passing her over.

Andrews is merely the foremost of the performers here. Dick Van Dyke has been the subjected to years of mockery for his patented brand of cockernee, but it’s a choice that absolutely works for the larger-than-life cheerful chappy he’s playing – you’ll have trouble even recalling Lin-Manuel Miranda in the equivalent role in Mary Poppy Returns (2018) – even if he professed that Jim Dale or Ron Moody would have been more suitable.

Mary Poppins also took home Oscars for Visual Effects, Editing, Art Direction (colour) and Best Song in the form of Chim Chim Cher-ee. David Tomlinson is magnificent as Mr Banks, whose heart thaws as fantasy triumphs over the pecuniary motive (Tomlinson would also return to the Stevenson fold for both The Love Bug and Bednobs and Broomsticks). Glynis Johns is his suffrage-enthused wife, an element that would surely be made into a heavy-handed meal today but is light and amusing while not actually mocking her. And Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber make for appealing rather than irksome Banks children.

Obviously, the plot is an excuse for a string of set pieces/songs, including the animated horse race highlight (crude in places, perhaps, from today’s perspective, but still impressive in its energy and musical engagement). Something like Step in Time isn’t such an amazing song on its own (appropriating Knees up Mother Brown), but combined with the chimney sweep choreography, it becomes so. I’m not as convinced by the “amusing” Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen) firing off his cannon next door (although he makes a return in Mary Poppins Returns, so I guess he’s a fan fave). The Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) scene is interestingly oddball, with him laughing so hard that he floats up to the ceiling; it’s suggestive of an alt-realm beyond the one initiated by the arrival of nanny. Later, Dawes Sr, the old director of the bank, follows suit.

It seems Travers was highly unimpressed by the animation (that bit makes it into Saving Mr. Banks (2013), where Guantanamo Hanks plays the equally reputable Walt). Combined with her distaste at the watering down of the title character and the divergence from her wish that period songs be used, she nixed any follow ups (which Saving Mr. Banks conspicuously does not relate). Maybe she’d have favoured Emily Blunt’s less cosy version, in that case. Or probably not, given the cabaret number. Mary Poppins Returns as a whole singularly lacks its predecessor’s warmth and dreamy gusto. Some films become favourites in spite of their being rather middling – nostalgia often lies at the root – but Mary Poppins fully deserves its rep.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.