contrarian opinions

Mary Poppins Is Not As Good As You Remember

Photo: Disney

Mary Poppins is one of the biggest and most beloved Disney classics ever, a film so enormous in its cultural reach that it has now inspired another movie, Saving Mr. Banks, which is all about its making. Because you are a human being, you likely watched Mary Poppins over and over as a child, and many of the songs and lines and individual moments from the movie are burned into your brain. What you don’t remember — and likely won’t, until Saving Mr. Banks tempts you into rewatching the movie as an adult — is just how much of Mary Poppins you probably fast-forwarded through during childhood. Quite a bit, as it turns out!

A few months ago, when I popped in Mary Poppins for the first time in decades, I expected to find it had only appreciated in value; after all, the other Julie Andrews singing spectacular from 1965, The Sound of Music, gets even better if you watch it again as a grown-up, since you’re more likely to fully appreciate the performances by Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and Eleanor Parker as the Baroness (not to mention that wonderfully tender ballad between the film’s two grown-up lovers, “Something Good”). The Sound of Music is sturdily structured and well-cast down to its smallest roles; rewatching it now, there’s really not a superfluous scene.

Not so much with Mary Poppins, y’all.

Let’s take this from the top: Mary Poppins begins with a few encouraging moments: We glimpse Mary’s silhouette in the clouds during the opening credits, then briefly check in with Dick Van Dyke as he sings a spooky snippet of “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” teasing, “I fear what’s to happen all happened before.” Okay, great start! Good atmosphere. I had forgotten there was any notion of some sort of Battlestar Galactica–like time loop happening with Mary Poppins, but I’m into it.

But then! Holy moly, does this movie take forever to get going. You might expect Mary Poppins to swiftly introduce the title character, or even the children she will eventually play nanny to. It does not. You might even expect the first song in the movie to be sung by the protagonist, or to have some bearing or tonal importance on the rest of the story; instead, the very first musical number is a song you completely forgot about, “Sister Suffragette,” which is sung by the kids’ mom to the maid and cook. Just to compare and contrast, The Sound of Music begins with that iconic, titular number in the hills that immediately establishes the hopes and dreams and journey of its heroine, Maria, whereas Mary Poppins opens with the kids’ random mom (who has maybe five more lines in the whole movie) singing about women’s voting rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910. It’s like if The Wizard of Oz had begun with a tender ballad about the stock market sung by friggin’ Auntie Em.

After that song is over, do we meet Mary Poppins or the children? We do not. Instead, the second musical number begins, and this one belongs to the children’s father, Mr. Banks (played by David Tomlinson), who swans about his house singing about his contentedly wealthy existence. (Yes, this is a film for children that spends its first ten minutes exploring the mental state of suffragettes and the kid-friendly concept of noblesse oblige. Nailed it!) Saving Mr. Banks makes it clear that author P.L. Travers had based this character on her own father, played by Colin Farrell in the film, but as our own David Edelstein wrote, “It’s impossible to make the essential connection between Farrell’s depressive alcoholic and David Tomlinson’s sexless martinet in Disney’s Mary Poppins.” Many a family film has revolved around a father realizing that he ought to spend more time with his neglected children, but rarely has that dad been so revoltingly prim. I’m sorry (I’m not sorry) to keep unfavorably comparing Mary Poppins to The Sound of Music, but Christopher Plummer’s repressed male lead contained multitudes, whereas Tomlinson is wispy, jowly, and one unflattering camera angle away from looking like this film’s tragic gay villain.

Though Tomlinson’s number, “The Life I Lead,” is more enticing than “Sister Suffragette,” it also serves exactly the same function: In both songs, a Banks parent obliviously croons while someone tries to break the news that the nanny has quit and the children are missing. This is your first indication that Mary Poppins will not be succinct about almost anything, and later on, many of its musical numbers will last for a truly patience-trying amount of time. That interlude where Mary and the kids escape into the world of cartoon penguins? It is roughly the length of The Wolf of Wall Street. The Mary Poppins soundtrack is a testament to its inconsistency: The classic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” lasts an expedient two minutes and 3 seconds, while the late-movie dance number “Step in Time” is an endless eight minutes and 42 seconds. Which one can you sing right now, off the top of your head?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. After those first two musical numbers, the movie finally, finally introduces the goddamn children, and shortly after that, Mary Poppins breezes in. This part is good, because Julie Andrews is delightful. (Except for the animated penguin bit, which goes on way too long, and which even Saving Mr. Banks offers up as a punch line.) The real problem comes in the second half of the film, where it suddenly seems like Mary Poppins ought to be retitled Boring Bank Stuff: The Movie. There are so many scenes in the bank! As a child, you likely fast-forwarded all the way from “Feed the Birds” to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” but you were skipping past a whole super-deadly portion of the movie that supposes we would like several sequences (and even musical numbers) set at Mr. Banks’s workplace. It is lugubrious. The first of those scenes includes a pretty dire song about compound investments, “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” a tune that makes Emma Thompson hulk out upon hearing it in Saving Mr. Banks (and rightfully so, because who gives an umbrella-aided flying shit about a song on prudent financial investments in this FILM FOR CHILDREN); later on, Mr. Banks is summoned to a secret hell-chamber by 80-year-old men to discuss the effect of panicked runs on the banks, a scene that never ends. By the time Julie Andrews decides that she should leave the family behind, you may be surprised to find that Mary Poppins is still in Mary Poppins; that’s how sidelined she’s been for the second half of the movie.

Joe Queenan recently wrote a piece for the Guardian on why we ought to reevaluate classic films with an unbiased eye, and with Saving Mr. Banks in theaters, there’s no better time to take a bewildered second look at Mary Poppins. The good parts are just as good as you remember — it’s just that they’ve been overrun by so many boring parts that it’s shocking. For every spoonful of sugar that Mary Poppins offers, there are two more spoons of medicine you’ve got to take first, and they’ve got an aftertaste that you’ve likely tried to forget since childhood.

(To be fair, though, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is still pretty amazing.)

Mary Poppins Is Not As Good As You Remember