There are lots of trite and clichéd ways I could kick
off a review of the Mary Poppins 40th Anniversary Edition
DVD. Some play upon the phrase "Practically perfect in every
way," and the word "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" comes
to mind, so to spare everyone involved the embarrassment of
such indulgence, I won't go that route. Suffice to say that
the Disney company has put together an impressive and worthy
two-disc package that compares favorably to the lavish treatment
given the Snow White release, the previous high water
mark in the Disney DVD catalogue.
The movie itself, for those half-dozen or so people who have never seen it, has long been considered the crowning achievement of Walt Disney's career, and for good reason. Cherry-picking the most fantastic scenes from P.L. Travers' books about a magical nanny and the British family she visits time and again, the movie stitches the events together in an ambitious musical tour-de-force.
Earning Academy Awards for then-unknown actress Julie Andrews for her portrayal of the title character, Richard and Robert Sherman for best score and best song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee") and special effects for combining live action with animation, Mary Poppins boasts the traditional Disney themes of family and whimsy, but subtly incorporates more substantial ideas as well, such as gender equity and social consciousness.
While some of the special effects may seem dated by modern standards of glossy, hyper-real computer animation, the film overall holds up astonishingly well 40 years after initial release. In some instances — the glorious matte paintings of turn-of-the-century London, for example — the low-tech approach to filmmaking proves superior to modern high-tech tricks, and is breathtakingly beautiful at that. The digital transfer preserves the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and the colors have never been richer or crisper, which is particularly evident during the animated sequences.
The new audio mix is even more impressive. Sharper and clearer than ever before, the film is now awash in subtle audio detail. Supposedly the sound effects were "sweetened" and other new tweaks added here and there, heresy for film purists. The good news is that none of the additions are obvious — there is no sonic equivalent of Greedo shooting first, here — and the overall effect is impressive. The soundtrack doesn't sound different, only better.
Lucky as Lucky Can Be
Of course, buying DVDs for the movie itself is passé — the extras and bonus features are the real draw these days, and this two-disc set has plenty. The obligatory commentary track features reminiscing from Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, along with the Sherman brothers and Karen Dotrice, who played Jane in the film. While the commentaries don't provide any grand illumination of the film, they excel at establishing the tone and energy surrounding the production way back when. None of the performers were quite certain how the final product would turn out, but they were all convinced of Walt Disney's visionary creativity and strove to live up to his standards. One particularly amusing anecdote comes from Dotrice, who explained that the child actors had no idea Van Dyke played, in addition to everyman Bert, the elderly Mr. Dawes at the bank. The children were actually afraid of the decrepit character, convinced he would drop dead at any moment.
A mini-feature — a musical reunion with Van Dyke, Andrews and Richard Sherman — retreads much of the same ground covered in the commentaries, but adds some new details as the three swap stories while seated around a grand piano. It begins coming out that the Sherman brothers wrote many more songs than were actually used in the final film. This is explored to greater extent in "A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman," as he explains the evolution of the film's score and musical numbers.
Some songs, such as Mary Poppins' theme "Practically Perfect in Every Way," evolved into "Sister Suffragette." Others, such as "Admiral Boom's Theme," were reduced to a few bars in the instrumental score, and "The Beautiful Briny Sea" was excised entirely, only to resurface a few years later in Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The highlight is Sherman's brief rendition of "Chimpanzoo," a quirky, absurd little song that was cut from the film the day before Andrews was to record it.
After hearing tantalizing snippets of all the music that was written and not used in the movie, I'm convinced that Disney should bring in Andrews, Van Dyke and as many members of the surviving cast as possible and formally record these missing pieces, releasing them in a comprehensive boxed set titled "The More Than Complete Music of Mary Poppins" or somesuch. Such a move isn't unheard-of; after all, there is a very nice boxed set collecting the music from the Rocky Horror film and stage play, as well as the sequel Shock Treatment that does much the same thing.
"The Making of Mary Poppins" documentary is interesting and sheds some light on some of the technical and legal hurdles Walt Disney faced in his efforts to bring the film to the screen, but suffers some from the fact that it is a contemporary retrospective and as such tends to view events through the candy-coated lens of nostalgia. This could be forgiven from a promotional piece of the time, but it's almost unforgivable for a modern documentary to utterly ignore the famous clashes that arose between Disney and Travers as the production wore on. Still, despite the drawbacks, the documentary does a good job of unearthing and restoring archival footage and is as definitive a behind-the-scenes look as we're likely to get with this film.
Another mini-documentary, "Movie Magic," brims over with fascinating details on the special effects of the film, but was presumably targeted at a pre-teen audience for The Disney Channel and uses "hip" lingo such as "rad" far too often for its own good.
Continuing in the "behind-the-scenes" vein are the "Deconstructions" of the musical sequences "Jolly Holiday" and "Chim Chim Cher-ee." Alternating between finished shots, special effects overlays and the unadorned actors' performances, what sounds initially like a dry film-school technical study turns out to be one of the most fascinating inclusions on the disc. The end result is all the more impressive once all the layers of creativity that went into the scene — from the actors' improvisations, to the animator's problem-solving, to creative choreography — are laid bare for all to see and admire.
Archival footage of the gala world-premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with interviews from the red carpet and the huge after-movie party, completes the package, along with publicity stills and extensive samples of concept art, storyboards, merchandise and on-set photos. I know there must be more archival goodies locked away in the Disney vaults someplace, but there is enough material packed into this set to keep even the most ardent Poppins devotee occupied for the foreseeable future.
And Some Things Quite Atrocious
But what of the discs' disappointments? The biggest, obviously, is the lack of commentary from Walt Disney himself. While the man is represented in occasional archival footage, his thoughts and discussion of the film are surprisingly superficial for a project supposedly so close to his heart. With his well-documented habit of using his television programs such as "The Wonderful World of Color" to promote upcoming projects, it's somewhat incongruous that other than a teaser trailer for Grauman's Chinese Theatre and a brief red carpet interview during the gala premier that he didn't commit any additional thoughts to film or tape.
Another annoyance is the "I Love to Laugh" interactive trivia game. Like so many other games of this sort included on DVDs, it's tedious at best, the modern equivalent of the old BASIC programming "if=then" adventures. Disc owners will play this one exactly once, out of curiosity, then never revisit it.
The final flaw is what should be the biggest bonus on the disc — a new short film, based in part on P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins Opens the Door. Awkward from the start, the piece opens with Julie Andrews pointedly not reprising her role of Mary Poppins, yet at the same time aping her portrayal of Mary Poppins by repeating lines from the film verbatim as she leaps into a chalk drawing with two children who seem just as baffled as Andrews as to why they're there in the first place. The animation sequence they enter, "The Cat that Looked at a King," is a traditional fable-type tale extolling the virtues of humility and the dangers of hubris. Laudable enough message, that, but it is undone by the garish, exaggerated animation, wholly inappropriate for the "chalk drawing" motif. The story itself is rushed along, with volume and bluster as pale substitutes for wit and character. Compared to the rich character animation of the film itself, this whole segment is simply painful to watch, further evidence that the direct-to-video mill Disney animation has become just doesn't "get it."
It's Mary That We Love
If you've seen Mary Poppins and don't like it, this DVD isn't about to change your mind, but it's hard not to come away with a renewed appreciation for the tremendous creative effort that went into making the movie.
If you love the film, or even casually like it, this is the definitive version of Mary Poppins. The DVD will do nothing to diminish your admiration of the movie, and might even give you a dozen or so more reasons to love it all the more.