You'd have to search far and wide to find someone unfamiliar with Robert Stevenson's Mary Poppins (1964). Adapted from the colorful children's book series by P. L. Travers, this tale of a prim, proper nanny and the lives she changes is hardly short on magic---and thanks to a solid story, memorable songs and groundbreaking special effects, this Disney classic has held up quite well during the last 45 years. Featuring strong performances by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (among others), it's as much a lively Broadway show as a near-seamless motion picture experience.
Even so, the occasional seams are what give Mary Poppins some of its enduring charm. The gravity-defying tricks and liberal mixture of live-action and animation are cleverly presented---but not completely invisible, mind you---and manage to create a fun atmosphere that audiences of all ages can still get lost in. Adults may know better, but it's these colorful illusions that fuel our younger imaginations; like Santa Claus, The Polar Express or a free lunch, we're better off just believing in such truths and enjoying ourselves. Andrews' perfectly poised nanny is as much a magical figure as the man in the red suit, at least to those who haven't yet figured out practical effects.
Speaking of Andrews (and with all due respect to Van Dyke, whose lovable Bert remains a perfect partner to Poppins), this is perhaps her most career-defining performance...aside from The Sound of Music, that is. Her prior success in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady made her a shoe-in for the 1964 Warner Bros. film adaptation, but Andrews' role was ultimately given to the more recognizable Audrey Hepburn. Such a disappointment turned out to be a blessing in disguise: though My Fair Lady remains a classic in its own right, Andrews was awarded the role of Mary Poppins later that year. Her strong singing voice and stage presence proved to be the perfect match for Stevenson's stage-like film production---and paired with Van Dyke, the film nearly gets by on vocal talent and choreography alone.
As if we need a refresher course, Mary Poppins tells the story of a proper British nanny (Andrews) and her descent to London. Her vocal abilities are matched only by her etiquette. Bert (Van Dyke) remains a more grounded version of her character: as a dirty but charming chimney sweep, his street performances are genuine crowd-pleasers. Poppins soon encounters Jane and Michael Banks, two young children in need of a patient nanny---and like The Sound of Music one year later, Andrews' role calls for copious amounts of teaching, guidance, song and dance. Her magic tricks delight and amuse the young children (much to the increasing disapproval of their father, mind you), while the like-minded group regularly escapes to more fanciful realms. Bert often comes along for the ride, though the changing winds ensure that Mary won't always be in their company. Essentially, it's a story of childhood fancy and escapism---and though the show runs a bit long at 139 minutes, there's enough here to delight and inspire visually-minded audiences of all ages.
Though it's been five years since the last release (a 2-disc 40th Anniversary Edition), this marks the fourth time that Mary Poppins has been made available on DVD; unlike the last version, this one doesn't offer much that we haven't seen before. Roughly an hour's worth of new bonus features---all of which focus on the popular Broadway show---are the only things that separate this release from the 40th Anniversary Edition, which may frustrate those looking for an upgrade across the board. Though this is certainly a complete package in the technical sense, it's mainly for those who don't own Mary Poppins on DVD yet. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
NOTE: The technical presentation of this release is identical to the 40th Anniversary Edition.
Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Mary Poppins looks quite good from start to finish. The film's wildly varied color palette has been preserved nicely, black levels are solid and digital problems are kept to a minimum. Aside from a few hints of dirt and debris along the way, the only minor issues here are due to the original source material (including the special effects). Though a minor tweak could've helped to set this 45th Anniversary Edition apart, first-time buyers shouldn't be disappointed overall.
The audio is also generally pleasing, available in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 theatrical mix or an enhanced 5.1 surround mix. It's good to see both have been kept on board (as well as separate French and Spanish language tracks), as either choice creates an enjoyable atmosphere. The 5.1 track features tasteful use of the rear channels, which is typically limited to musical numbers and background effects. Optional English captions, as well as French and Spanish subtitles, have been included during the main feature and all of the extras. As usual, it's good to see Disney maintain such a polished level of presentation.
Disc 2 features a handful of all-new Broadway-related extras, leading off with "Mary Poppins: From Page to Stage" (48:04, below left). This beautifully-shot piece includes interviews with producer Thomas Schumacher, stars Ashley Brown (Mary Poppins) and Gavin Lee (Bert), producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer George Stiles, lyricist Anthony Drewe, costume designer Bob Crowley and more. "Step In Time" (7:08, below right) is a recording from the live Broadway show, featuring terrific choreography and vocal performances. Also here is Bob Crowley's Design Gallery, which details a number of original production and costume sketches. Closing out the new extras is an Audio Download of "Step In Time" in mp3 format, accessible via a weblink contained on the disc.
The second disc continues with a number of more recycled extras, though they're excellent in their own right. First up is "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins" (50:43), a 2004 documentary featuring new interviews and plenty of vintage production clips. "Movie Magic" (7:05) presents a curiously "extreme" look at the film's special effects, while "The Gala World Premiere" (17:45) is a fantastic compilation of audio and video clips from the film's 1964 debut. Also here is a Dick Van Dyke Make-up Test (1:08) with retrospective commentary by the actor, an extensive Trailer & TV Spot Gallery and a handful of Production Design & Photo Galleries. All are worth browsing through, especially considering the film's rich level of production detail.
The returning extras continue with "A Magical Musical Reunion" (17:18), a melodically-charged chat with Andrews, Van Dyke and Richard Sherman. The composer is featured again during "A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman" (20:51), which provides a general overview of the musical production---along with a few surprises along the way, of course. Also here is a Deleted Song entitled "Chimpanzoo" (1:39), which is paired with a handful of unused storyboards from the film.
The extras conclude with "The Cat that Looked at a King" (9:52), a short film based partially upon P. L. Travers' Mary Poppins Opens the Door. A combination of live action and animation, this charming little piece is hosted by Julie Andrews and fits right in nicely. All bonus features are presented in a haphazard mix of non-anamorphic, 1.33:1 and enhanced widescreen formats. English captions, as well as Spanish and French subtitles, are included during every applicable extra.
Nearly 50 years after its original release, Robert Stevenson's Mary Poppins continues to delight audiences of all ages with music, mirth and magic. Though the show runs a bit long at 139 minutes, most of what's here has aged perfectly well: the strong performances and memorable songs are good enough, but the production design and special effects are the true unsung heroes. Disney's fourth release of this certified classic will give die-hard fans reason to complain, especially since 90% of the content remains identical to the previous two-disc set. Still, with roughly an hour's worth of new extras and nothing lost from the last release, this version is technically the one to beat. Owners of the 40th Anniversary Edition will probably be satisfied with a rental, but those with older versions---and fans who have yet to purchase Mary Poppins on DVD, of course---will certainly get their money's worth. Mildly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.