Mary Poppins

A Proper English Nanny of the Magical Persuasion

Still from 'Mary Poppins'
Still from 'Mary Poppins'. Disney

Charming, magical, full of whimsy and delight, Mary Poppins holds up awfully well a half century after it was made. Catchy tunes and superb dance numbers highlight this diverting classic children's movie, along with a starchy, confident performance by the young Julie Andrews that keeps the whole thing from getting too sentimental.

The Plot

In Edwardian London, unruly children Jane and Michael Banks regularly drive their nannies away with their messy habits and tendency to escape for unsupervised adventures in the park.

Their distant banker father decides to take the task of hiring a new nanny away from his distracted suffragette wife, but the children write their own job description, which mysteriously flies up the chimney.

Proper Mary Poppins arrives on a cloud, floating down with her umbrella with the children's ad in hand, while all the other nannies lined up for interviews with Mr. Banks are blown away by a mysterious wind, like crumpled paper dolls. From then on, Mary Poppins is firmly in charge, and magical things start to happen.

The nursery straightens itself up with a snap of the finger, toys march into the toy box and beds make themselves. Jack-of-all-trades Bert draws chalk scenes at the park, and the children jump through them with Mary Poppins for a country outing and a thrilling race with carousel ponies. There's a tea party on the ceiling, dancing penguin waiters, shenanigans at father's bank, and a thrilling rooftop dance with a troupe of chimney sweeps.

Of course, when the wind changes, Mary Poppins has to leave, but the Banks family is changed forever. Awww.

The Cast of 'Mary Poppins'

Andrews plays Mary Poppins with the ramrod-straight posture, stern demeanor and vanity of the nanny in the original children's books, yet maintains a magical twinkle and a cheerier disposition.

She gets to show off her pipes as well, from the tongue-twisting "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius" to the lovely ballad "Feed the Birds" and the lullaby "Stay Awake." In the words of her own tape measure, she's practically perfect in every way.

Dick Van Dyke as Bert is at his best when he's singing and dancing, flapping his long, loose limbs around the screen. I'm not a huge fan of the Disney trick of mixing live action with animation, but Van Dyke is hilarious dancing with the animated penguins. (They're pretty light on their feet, too.) And there has rarely been a dance sequence in any film to rival the chimney sweeps.

Van Dyke’s Cockney accent is truly awful, made all the more annoying by the fact that the movie draws together a stable of legendary British actors, from Elsa Lanchester’s cameo as the departing nanny, Glynis John’s soda-pop-bubble voice as Mrs. Banks, Hermione Baddeley as the chief domestic and David Tomlinson, the quintessential proper Englishman, as Mr. Banks. Add to them Arthur Treacher in a bit part as a constable, and you have to wonder why Disney didn’t take a chance on a great British star/dancer for the male lead. (American Ed Wynn as Mary Poppins’ laughter-afflicted uncle wisely didn’t try an accent at all.)

The children – Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice – do a serviceable job, but aren’t as knock-your-socks-off charming as the script allows. It’s a minor quibble.

The Backstory

Walt Disney tried for more than twenty years to get the rights to the story from British author P.L. Travers, who ultimately hated the finished film as a betrayal of her books. Nevertheless,  Disney always claimed it as one of his best films. The Academy Awards agreed, giving it 13 nominations and five wins – the best night at the Oscars a single Disney film has ever had. The film was the box office champ for 1965.

The Bottom Line

Like a good children’s book, Mary Poppins stands the test of time as a good children’s movie. While it may be a bit sweet for the grownups, the tunes are cheery, and the dancing is amazing.

Similar Films to Check Out

You may like other children's films and fantasies, such as The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or the original Dr. Doolittle.

You might also try other Disney live-action films, such as The Absent-Minded Professor or That Darn Cat and classic Disney animated movies.

Just the Facts:

Year: 1964, Color
Director: Robert Stevenson
Running Time: 139 minutes
Studio: Disney