This year’s movie battle royale was not set on a distant starship or in a dispotian future, but at a 1961 Disney Studios office. There, the film Saving Mr. Banks pitted Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers as he attempted to produce a live-action Mary Poppins and she made every effort to derail the project. Even after her relinquishing and its stunning success, the stodgy Brit Travers never warmed up to it. Luckily for the rest of us, Walt won and the film became one of the most beloved of any live-action or animated in history. There’s an unmistakable warmth and innocence behind the film which survives to this day. Each generation of children since have become introduced to the world of Mary and Bert, while giving parents a gentle reminder of their youth and a collection of unmistakably brilliant songs to tap their toes. Thus it was probably no surprise when Mary Poppins took bring home an amazing five Oscars the following year. Its arrival onto Blu-ray is another Disney winner, establishing itself across the gamut of categories.
After their most recent nanny quits, George (David Tomlinson) and Winifred (Glynis Johns) Banks are forced yet again to find a replacement, hoping to land someone who can keep their rebellious children Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) from disappearing yet again. The children want a caring and kind nanny, crafting an ad which George promptly tosses into the fire. To their surprise, the childrens’s prayers are answered, courtesy of Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), who sails in with the wind and her umbrella, literally blowing all of the other applicants away. She’s not your typical nanny, using magic and songs to set her day, jumping into chalk drawings made by the street peddler and chimney sweeper Bert (Dick Van Dyke), and pulling all sorts of items from her seemingly endless handbag. As Mary opens Michael and Jane’s eyes to the world, she also works her magic on the parents, who have lost their love for each other and their children. The result is a mostly cheerful and heart-warming experience.
It’s clear that Van Dyke and Andrews are having a great time singing, dancing, and floating throughout the film. For Andrews, it was her first, and perhaps it was that enthusiasm of bringing her Broadway talents to the big screen that resulted in such an impressive first outing. Whatever the reasons, the messages of joy, determination, hard work, and love are littered over all the place, filling our hearts and reminding us of a simpler time in movies, when the story centered squarely on characters getting along. No deep political twists, intrigue, or end of the world scenarios for our heroes to best. And there’s no villain either, except perhaps in George’s lost love for his children. It’s hard to place all the credit for the film’s success on one particular area, because so much of it works on so many levels. Director Robert Stevenson is technically brilliant, Andrews and Van Dyke are an extremely likeable pair, and the music by the Sherman Brothers have become woven into our culture and consciousness. But it’s the sense of possibilities, the idea that great adventures await people of any age, and the effect which one positive person can have on people is terribly needed during our dark times. With so much angst at home and abroad, Mary Poppins serves as a beautiful reminder that good still exists in the world, and that a cheerful song and smile can brighten anyone’s day.
In the commentary, you hear Richard Sherman agree with Dotice about the magic that pervaded on the set, that everyone knew that what they were filming was special. It certainly makes it way onto the print in a way that I did not notice as a child. Having not seen it in decades, today my appreciation for it is renewed. It is skillfully constructed and tender in its message, even if its special effects haven’t survived so well. I know many critics are using the word ‘timeless’ to describe this re-release, but I can’t help but join in: Mary Poppins makes me smile in the same way it did when I saw it as a child, perhaps as early as its 1973 re-release. It retains the best elements of our youth, and should endure as it will no doubt be introduced to succeeding generations of children, while their loving parents tap along.
Mary Poppins flies in with a colorful and clear MPEG-4/AVC transfer that shows off Disney’s abilities in fine form. Colors are rich, warm, and inviting, from the realistic skintones to the clothing and beautifully worn-in look of the sets. Some black levels are a tad crushed, but they never interfere with shadows, which blend agreeably such as in Chapter 6 – take a look at the drapes in Mary’s room as she unpacks. Detail, such as wrinkles on faces and clothing, are crystal clear, which softens slightly during some animated scenes. But that’s more of an issue with the original master print, and less on Disney’s restoration. And then there’s the perfectly-orchestrated Chapter 9 ‘Jolly Holiday,’ which demonstrates just how beautifully-shot and carefully restored this print is. The lace on Mary’s gloves and the foreground flowers blend seamlessly together, and there’s even a bit of depth as the penguins enter to do their scene. Grain is magically preserved while never revealing the wire act of the nannies being blown away, a testament to the production of the time, and a ringing endorsement of Disney’s ability to usher the film into the high-definition era. There is slight evidence of ringing around live actors during animated scenes, but again that’s part of the challenges of shooting in 1964. I can’t imagine Disney could eliminate that without reconstructing the whole thing, but they certainly eliminate it as much as they can. Gladly, there is no evidence of banding, pixelation, or artifacting. As usual, Disney’s restoration is something to be admired; Mary Poppins is near perfect. My only hope is that we’ll eventually see many of their other live-action treasures given such tender care as this.
Disney presents Mary Poppins with a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that’s surprisingly front and center as opposed to enveloping the listener. None of that technology existed at the time, so the track’s simplicity is an aspect that audiophiles will have to accept. Gratefully, its crisp dialogue is never hard to hear and the music is actually divided with the melodies in the rear and singing through the fronts and center. When the Sherman Brothers break out into the more boisterous songs such as Let’s Go Fly a Kite, you feel the energy of the tune filling your kite as well, as the singers finally make their way to the surrounds. Sound effects dance across the front speakers effortlessly, while division of various sound effects perk up once in awhile in the rears. Again, this isn’t The Avengers or really anything done in the past 5 years in terms of LFE output or environmentals, but it works very well considering the source material. In the end, the studio maximizes their capital to the fullest, re-producing a flawless sound for its silver anniversary. In many ways, it sweeps the chimneys and dispenses its sugar in heaps of spoonfulls.
Mary Poppins is rich with enough supplements to enjoy every aspect of the film’s production. It appears Disney ported over every supplement from their 45th DVD Anniversary Edition, but we’d like confirmation from our readers if you own that copy. While most of it has not been upgraded to DTS-HD sound or 1080p glory, no one can say that the experience is thin. In short, every competing studio should take note of just how much effort (and material) Disney crams onto a 50GB BD, filling its releases with plenty of supplements, while building in plenty of reasons to upgrade:
- Becoming Mr. Sherman (HD, 14:01): The 2013 Saving Mr. Banks is featured with a behind-the-scenes discussion between Actor Schwartzman and Mary Poppins’ Composer Richard M. Sherman. The two sit down to discuss the film’s music and lyrics, while Schwartzman discusses how he played Sherman in the film. Sherman shares the challenges of collaborating with author P.L. Travers, and we get a full-length preview of John Lee Hancock’s film Banks.
- Mary-Oke (HD, Dolby Digital stereo, 7:58): A fun sing-along for the kids, complete with animated/karaoke-styled versions of A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Step in Time, and Chim Chim Cher-ee.
- Audio Commentary: Actors Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke sit down separately from Composers/Lyric Writers Richard and Robert Sherman and Actor Karen Dotrice to provide insights into the making of the film. They discuss the production challenges, their fun memories on set, and the palpable energy everyone felt. I wish the team as a whole could have sat down, but Disney does a good job to cut in their comments at the right time. As a result, it’s an engaging track that’s worth your time to dig into.
- Disney on Broadway (HD 55:14): This next section is broken down into two sections. The first is a 48:06 documentary titled Mary Poppins From Page to Stage, a discussion of how the the film was adapted into a Broadway production. There’s lots of interviews with the creative team including Disney Theatrical Productions Producer/President Thomas Schumacher and stage performers Gavin Lee (Bert) and Ashley Brown (Mary). Among the most interesting aspects is that we learn about the touchy situation behind Travers’ demands that no Americans were allowed on the creative team when the book was brought to Broadway. There is also the 7:08 featurette Step in Time with Broadway composer George Stiles introducing the performance of the stage musical.
- Backstage Disney: Embedded within this section are eight additional supplements. There’s the 50:46 documentary The Making of Mary Poppins, hosted by Dick Van Dyke and the red carpet featurettes The Gala World Premiere (17:45) and the 6:23 Gala World Premiere Party. In addition, we’re given the SPFX documentary Movie Magic (7:05), two Deconstruction of a Scene featurettes – Jolly Holiday (13:03) and Step in Time (4:52) – a Dick Van Dyke Make-Up Test (1:07) and a Publicity mini-set with original trailers, A Julie Andrews Greeting (00:39), 2 TV spots (00:32 and 00:33), and three re-issue trailers (1:02, 1:12, and 1:02, respectively).
- Music & More: There’s four extras here: the 17:19 SD retrospective A Magical Musical Reunion Featuring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Richard Sherman, the SD deleted song Chimpanzoo, and a suite of songs from the movie called Disney Song Selection (HD with DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound), which include a Movie Sing-Along track.
- The Cat that Looked at a King (SD, 9:52): This is a delightful 2004 animated/live-action short, starring Julie Andrews as she takes two children into a street chalk drawing featuring a contest between a talking cat and a king obsessed with knowledge.
Our evaluation copy arrived in an attractive Blu-ray Combo Pack, complete with a DVD and Digital Copy of the film. The embossed slipcase screams uber-quality, presenting a glitzy cover to match the high-quality inside. Although we would have liked to have seen all of the supplements upgraded to 1080p, it’s a minor complaint that is outshined by one of the deepest collection we’ve seen in 2013.
Robert Sherman believes the stars converged for Mary Poppins and there’s clear evidence for his pronouncement. Fifty years after its release, the film remains a classic in every way, from the perfect casting to the memorable, toe-tapping songs and the little moments behind Bert’s antics that will make you smile. It still deserves every bit of praise that it received in 1964, and the Blu-ray release is no different. The video and audio are outstanding, and the supplements represent the best of the year. It’s hard to accept the pricing for many Blu-rays these days, but this one is so value-added that you’d be hard-pressed to find a competitor. Add this to your collection and make the holidays as magical as the film itself. Mary Poppins is rated G, has a runtime of 139 minutes, and comes highly recommended.