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Mary Poppins: 45th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

Mary Poppins movie poster Mary Poppins

Theatrical Release: August 29, 1964 (limited) / Running Time: 139 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Robert Stevenson / Writers: Bill Walsh, Don Da Gradi; P.L. Travers (books)

Cast: Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), Dick Van Dyke (Bert, Mr. Dawes Senior), David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks), Glynis Johns (Mrs. Banks), Hermione Baddeley (Ellen), Karen Dotrice (Jane Banks), Matthew Garber (Michael Banks), Elsa Lanchester (Katie Nanna), Arthur Treacher (The Constable), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom), Ed Wynn (Uncle Albert), Reta Shaw (Mrs. Clara Brill), Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes Junior), Jane Darwell (The Bird Woman), James Logan (Citizen), Don Barclay (Mr. Binnacle), Alma Lawton (Mrs. Corry), Marjorie Eaton (Miss Persimmon), Marjorie Bennett (Miss Lark)

Songs: "Sister Suffragette", "The Life I Lead", "The Perfect Nanny", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Jolly Holiday", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", "Stay Awake", "I Love to Laugh", "Feed the Birds", "The Fidelity Fiduciary Bank", "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "Step in Time", "A Man Has Dreams", "Let's Go Fly a Kite"

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When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences announced its 2008 Oscar nominees last Thursday, many reported on the exclusion of popular critical darlings The Dark Knight and WALL-E from the Best Picture race. Commentators filed the somewhat expected snubs as further evidence that the Academy typically disregards blockbusters and animated movies, with the latter now being relegated to the minor league victories of its own separate category.
Animation has fared poorly when it comes to the top prize; only 1991's Beauty and the Beast earned a nomination and that was in a year of light competition. Tied to that fact is that the Walt Disney Company has had little luck at generating Best Picture nominees.

Walt Disney the man may have the record for most Oscars with 22 statues from competitive categories (nearly all from the Best Short Subject divisions) and another four honorary awards. But none of his features ever won Best Picture, and only one was nominated: Mary Poppins.

Released in 1964, Poppins is now sometimes considered a crowning achievement in Walt Disney's career. While that could be argued, that the film compiled all the various elements of past Disney triumphs cannot be. Live-action drama and comedy, animation, music, a period setting, and no shortage of the studio's trademark intangible magic all went into this over 2 hour picture. Garnering 13 Oscar nominations and winning five, Mary Poppins was the last big hit Walt Disney lived to see his studio produce. In many ways, it was also the biggest.

Magical English nanny Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) harmonizes with a visiting bird thanks to the wonder of Disney Audio-Animatronics. Extraordinary sights -- such as this Uncle Albert tea party that laughter lifts to the ceiling -- are commonplace in the company of Mary Poppins.

Rather than reprise the role of Eliza Doolittle for Jack Warner's film version of My Fair Lady, Tony-nominated stage actress Julie Andrews would make her live acting film debut in Walt Disney's musical fantasy. Adapted chiefly from the first of then four books penned by Australian-born, England-based P.L. Travers, Poppins tells the story of a magical English nanny who is "practically perfect in every way."

After their antics cause yet another nanny (Elsa Lanchester) to resign, mischievous kids Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael Banks (Matthew Garber) are in need of a new caregiver. A change in the wind blows out stuffy prospective applicants and blows in from the clouds one Mary Poppins (Andrews). Mary responds not to the stern advertisement placed by preoccupied paterfamilias Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) but to the rhyming one drafted by the children and disposed of by their father. She accepts the position and instantly sets about changing the Banks Family.

Mary Poppins imparts senses of duty and adventure into the swiftly charmed Jane and Michael. Tidying up their room becomes a delight by the power of snapping one's fingers. An outing introduces the kids to street artist/one-man band/chimney sweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke), who accompanies them into the wondrous locales of his chalk drawings. Further excitement and lessons unfold, leaving everyone the wiser and better-rounded.

Preoccupied by his bank job and her fight for women's vote, Mr. and Mrs. Banks (David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns) are in need of a full-time nanny in addition to the other household help. Meet Michael (Matthew Garber) and Jane (Karen Dotrice), the children whose taste for mischief sparks everything that happens in the film. Here, the kids spell out (in rhyme) the qualities they'd like to see in their new nanny.

I could discuss and celebrate Mary Poppins at length. But even if I hadn't already written about it just a few years ago, you've probably seen it, heard the considerable praise, and decided if you agree with it or not. However, I'd be remiss to run a website called UltimateDisney.com and fail to commend what is unquestionably one of the finest feature films to bear Walt Disney's name. As a compromise, I'll try to keep my analysis fresh.

All of the pieces fit together here. In the many compositions by Richard and Robert Sherman, we get some of the most wonderful songs ever penned for film. Almost all of the top-notch visual effects hold up today. The scenes that blend animation and live-action may not rank among my favorite portions of the film, as they do for many and inevitably would on a lesser film. But the medium mesh has perhaps never been as inspired or gloriously realized elsewhere.
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The film never lags; moments of tap-dancing penguins and high-stepping chimney sweepers may not advance the story, but they stand as some of the most entrancing diversions of their kind.

The script by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi is so much sharper and richer than the other live-action Disney works they wrote (a class that includes The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks). In addition to its poignant and tactful messages on family, imagination, and responsibility are bonus lessons on women's rights and economics.

Then there is the wonderful cast. Julie Andrews gets much of the credit for this group. Indeed, she delivers one of the great performances in cinema history. But let's not overlook her terrific co-stars. Dick Van Dyke claims as much screentime and though his challenged Cockney accent is a frequent source of ridicule, most will never be bothered by it. He's far too charismatic in providing some of the piece's heart and soul to notice what may be off-key diction. Credit is also earned by David Tomlinson, who embodies his prim part to perfection; Glynis Johns, who offers exuberance as the Banks' suffragist mother; and Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who excel in their second of three distinct pairings for Disney.

Perceptive viewers will notice that crotchety old bank director Mr. Dawes Sr. demands double duty from Dick Van Dyke, or Navckid Keyd as the sly end credits initially bill him. In the enchanted animated universe of a London sidewalk drawing, Bert holds the hand of a gravity-defying Mary Poppins.

Upon release, Mary Poppins was an absolute success with the public and critics. Neither group's perception has changed over the years, making it one of the most watched and admired films of its time. The American Film Institute would be wise to recognize it as such; though the group named it the nation's sixth best musical in 2006, they've repeatedly excluded it from their top 100 films and other applicable lists.

Among 1964 releases, Poppins earned more than all but My Fair Lady. Theatrical reissues have pushed Disney's musical far over Warner's in earnings, and there is no question who home video sales have favored.
The two films competed in a number of categories at the Academy Awards, with Lady emerging victoriously in the Picture, Director, Cinematography, Scoring, Costume Design, Art Direction, and Sound races. But Poppins took home awards for Original Song (the haunting "Chim Chim Cher-ee"), Original Score, Editing, and Visual Effects.

Arguably more important than any of those was Julie Andrews' victory for Best Leading Actress. Warner's choice for the screen's Eliza Doolittle, Audrey Hepburn, didn't get nominated for that category but lost in the Golden Globes' equivalent head-to-head. By the spring of the 1965 Oscars, Andrews was already earning raves for her subsequent film, The Sound of Music. That musical would give the actress a Best Picture winner, not to mention a blockbuster even bigger than Poppins and Lady.

As for Disney, Walt's studio has had a total of five Best Picture Oscar nominees originate from its namesake, Touchstone, and Hollywood branches. None of those won, but the company has four top prize winners and many other multiple nominees thanks to Miramax, the independent film division it acquired in 1993.

Despite all the acclaim Mary Poppins received and the exposure it gave her creations, Pamela Lyndon Travers was never pleased with Walt Disney's adaptation. She refused various pitches for sequels and even her reluctant agreement to a stage musical stipulated that only English-born writers were allowed to develop it.

Disney has released Mary Poppins on DVD more than any other film. It became the studio's first release on the format in March of 1998. In July 2000, it joined the then-thriving Gold Collection with a modest slate of extras and the same non-anamorphic transfer previously issued. Then in December of 2004, we got what appeared to be the definitive Poppins DVD in the two-disc 40th Anniversary Edition. Now, barely four years later, the film is treated to another double-disc set in this 45th Anniversary Edition. Holding most of the praiseworthy prior set's contents and adding some new features pertaining to the ongoing Broadway musical, this new edition is now in stores.

Once again, the film opens with the 1980s/'90s Walt Disney Pictures blue castle logo; its original Buena Vista Distribution screen can be partially seen at the end of the Hollywood premiere featurette.

Buy Mary Poppins: 45th Anniversary Edition from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish),
Dolby Surround (Original Theatrical Mix)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 27, 2009
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase with Side Snaps in
Embossed, Holographic Cardboard Slipcover

VIDEO and AUDIO

Like the last time around, Mary Poppins appears in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The packaging calls that the film's original aspect ratio, but once again the vertical bars that windowbox the movie within the 16:9 frame do cover up a tiny bit of picture seen on the first two releases' 1.85:1 presentation. It's not a huge deal, as overscan will hide the difference on most TVs, but we probably ought to see a bit more width from the film.

A new transfer could have corrected the framing, but none has been struck for this film's fourth DVD incarnation. That's fine because, minor aspect issue aside, the last DVD transfer got things quite right. Picture quality here is as good as on any 1960s film I've encountered on the format.
Watch an excerpt of the film's Oscar-winning song
"Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Step in Time" sequence:
The element is immaculate, colors are remarkably vibrant, and sharpness levels are just where they should be. Those really looking for shortcomings will encounter a few brief, minor ones. But this transfer dazzles just as it did on the previous DVD.

There's little shake-up in the sound department. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track here doesn't bear the Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix branding the last release did. It is still the same mix, nonetheless. Meanwhile, the previous release offered two ways to experience the movie in stereo surround, one being taken from the retooled Enhanced Home Theater Mix and the other being the "Original Theatrical Stereo Mix." Here, all you'll get is the latter, which makes sense and saves a few bits. There is an audible difference in the nature of the two English soundtracks and many will only accept the Surround as being faithful. Without taking too much advantage of the full soundfield (save for the lively rooftop fireworks scene), the 5.1 presentation does add oomph and volume to the musical presentations, while also cleaning up and amplifying dialogue elements.

French and Spanish subtitles have been added to the last release's English and reflecting 2009 Disney DVD sensibilities, all special features are subtitled. This 45th Anniversary Edition has dropped the THX Certification of the previous DVD release and thus the Optimode calibration tests are also dropped.

Disney Song Selection: Songs with lyric subtitles - what ever will they think of next?! ("Feed the Birds" is Mary Poppins' second lullaby to the Banks children and Walt Disney's favorite song.) Bert would be smiling even bigger if the Poppins Pop-Up Fun Facts hadn't been bafflingly shrunk and squished. This Cherry Tree Lane tidbit and all of the others were easier to read on the 40th Anniversary Edition DVD.

BONUS FEATURES

Disc One

The same three bonus features from Disc 1 of the 40th Anniversary Edition accompany the feature again here.

First and least exciting is Disney Song Selection, which allows one to play eight musical numbers from the film with the lyrics on screen. Why still eight and not all of them? I don't know. That seems to somewhat defeat the purpose and also renders the all-musical abbreviated cut of the film yielded by "Play All" incomplete.

Next, 2004's audio commentary is recycled. Heard here are Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke; actress Karen Dotrice and songwriter Richard Sherman; and songwriter Robert Sherman.
That's how the five were recorded, but the three separate sessions are capably melded, with the actors and Richard doing the bulk of the talking. They're all audibly enamored with the film in this funny, exciting track, which also includes scattered archival clips from Andrews, Van Dyke, Walt Disney, director Robert Stevenson, and conductor Irwin Kostal. Fascinating stories emerge from all, and Andrews and Van Dyke's upbeat reflections are especially sweet.

Easy to enjoy in tandem with the commentary, "Poppins Pop-Up Fun Facts" are screen-specific tidbits that appear throughout the film via subtitle graphics. They are unchanged in content from last time, covering the books, actors, production, and reception on a steady basis. In appearance, however, the facts are now shrunk down and look horizontally squished. Naturally, they're harder to read this way and I can think of no reason for the change.

Disc One loads with the standard Disney promo and trailers for Pinocchio: Platinum Edition, Up (a new piece that samples Pixar's past hits), Space Buddies, The Secret of the Magic Gourd and Disney Movie Rewards. The themed Sneak Peeks menu adds other previews for Monsters, Inc. (a unique ad touting this spring-scheduled Blu-ray debut and the format in general), Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Bolt, Oliver & Company: 20th Anniversary Edition, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, and Disney Parks.

The stars of Broadway's Mary Poppins musical Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee discuss their craft in front of their Sardi's restaurant caricatures in "From Page to Stage." Broadway's Mary, Michael, Jane, and Bert perform "Step in Time" in a nicely-shot stage excerpt. The three-level Banks house is one of six set designs from Bob Crowley's galleries.

Disc Two

The second disc's top-billed section is the all-new Disney on Broadway, devoted to the forgettable, crowd-pleasing production.

First and longest is "Mary Poppins: From Page to Stage", a 48-minute featurette.

It deals primarily with developing the project and translating it to a theatrical musical. We hear from producer Cameron Mackintosh, Disney's Animation-turned-Theatrical head Thomas Schumacher, Richard Sherman, musicians George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and actors Ashley Brown (Broadway's Mary) and Gavin Lee (Burt of London and Broadway). Though this is a well-produced feature, those with no prior predilection for the medium might find it dry and theoretical. But at least it's not a shameless pitch for business.

Next comes a 7-minute video presentation of the "Step in Time" sequence from Broadway, introduced by composer Stiles. The widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are both fantastic, and you get varying angles all better than the best seats in the house at the New Amsterdam Theatre whilst still being able to stretch out your legs. If this has the intended effect of making you see the musical, you may miss the close views you sacrifice by being there.

"Bob Crowley's Design Gallery" consists of Costume Designs (33 images), Set Designs (6), Concept Art (13), and Set Models (16). The self-navigated sections are quickly and easily enjoyed and follow a 10-second introduction by set/costume designer Crowley.

Closing out the section is a first for Disney: a complimentary MP3 file. The non-protected, easily-transferred 7-minute track features the "never-before-recorded" Mary Poppins Broadway Cast performing "Step in Time."

The dapper Dick Van Dyke hosts "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins." Dick Van Dyke looks lonely without the company of cartoon penguins in this black sodium vapor screen footage from "The Movie Magic..." Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers is interviewed on the red carpet of the Gala World Premiere. Though she looks happy here, stories say her first viewing of the film left her in tears, telling Walt Disney the animated parts had to go. Disney reportedly brushed her off, saying "Pamela, the ship has sailed."

All of the remaining extras appeared on the 40th Anniversary Edition.

The Backstage Disney kicks off with "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins" (50:42), an excellent all-purpose documentary. This thorough retrospective takes us through the long process of adaptation, the casting of the principals, the special effects and animation, the Sherman Brothers songs, and the film's enduring legacy. Just about everyone you'd want to be involved here is, including Dick Van Dyke (who hosts), his fellow audio commentators, Glynis Johns, and late matte artist Peter Ellenshaw. Among the many interesting items heard here are anecdotes of the tough-to-please P.L. Travers and the industrious, prematurely deceased Matthew Garber.

Next, we get a short, kid-friendly take on the film's effects with 2002's "The Movie Magic of Mary Poppins" (7:00). The voice-cracking narrator and slick Disney Channel tone don't prevent this from being an informative how-they-did-it.

"The Gala World Premiere" (17:44) pieces together color and black & white footage of the red carpet arrivals at the lavish August 1964 debut Disney threw Mary Poppins at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Appearing from the film are Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Walt Disney, Ed Wynn, Reta Shaw, director Robert Stevenson, writer/producer Bill Walsh, and author P.L. Travers. Others interviewed include Celeste Holm, Annette Funicello, Cesar Romero, Buddy Ebsen, Brian Keith, and Vera Miles. It's an amazing time capsule from Hollywood past, with the evidently staged glitz and glamour easy to revel in. Unfortunately, its post-screening companion piece from the previous DVD has been dropped; more on that later.

You'll never guess what "Dick Van Dyke Make-Up Test" (1:07) is. It's a screen test of the actor in the heavy make-up which aged him for his supporting part of Mr. Dawes Sr. Forty-five years later, the spry, studly DVD still looks nothing whatsoever like this decrepit bank director.

Once the standby bonus feature, original trailers have become such a scarcity on DVD that it's especially rewarding to encounter a winning Publicity section like the one here. From the initial 1964 run, we get two full trailers and a couple of 30-second TV spots. There is a 38-second video greeting from Julie Andrews excusing her inability to attend theater premieres throughout the US. Also housed here are a trio of minute-long previews from 1966 and 1973 return engagements, one of which brought a Disney stage show to Radio City Music Hall.

Two pages of contributions by Disney's incomparable matte artist Peter Ellenshaw stand as one of the DVD's eleven Still Art Galleries. Richard Sherman, Julie Andrews, and Dick Van Dyke share a laugh around a piano in "A Magical Musical Reunion." Legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman sits down against an animated backdrop in "A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman."

Once again, the Mary Poppins Still Art Galleries number eleven. Visual Development (36 stills) holds colorful artwork foretelling the film's palette. Story Development (18) provides fairly crude storyboard sketches. Peter Ellenshaw Paintings (12) display the Disney Legend at work and his striking artistic contributions to the film. Recording Sessions (9) depict the actors performing songs for the soundtrack. Costumes & Makeup (35) supplies both character design drawings and actor test photos. Behind the Scenes (78) documents production mostly with black & white stills. Cast Photos (18) show off the actors mostly in costume. Walt & Friends (9) captures Disney during the production. Red carpet photos comprise The Premiere (10). Publicity (27) holds posters, print ads, and a Disney Channel magazine cover. Finally, Memorabilia (21) shows us albums, books, and less usual tie-in items.

Music & More begins with "A Magical Musical Reunion" (17:16), which brings together Richard Sherman, Julie Andrews, and Dick Van Dyke. Their spirited reflections center largely on the film's songs, which Sherman is eager to play by heart on the piano.

The songwriter then hosts "A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman" (20:50), taking us on a fun virtual tour of the film's settings while telling us all about numbers and melodies that were penned for the film, a number of which didn't make it into the final product. In addition to Sherman's information, we get some great behind-the-scenes footage here.

The section closes with the deleted song "Chimpanzoo" (1:36), which Richard Sherman sings while performing on piano and kazoo. This unrecorded short number would have fit into the Uncle Albert part with fantastic imagery, which is conveyed in storyboards and concept art. The separate listing is a bit of a gimmick, since it closes the previous featurette with context and background.

Julie Andrews takes two youngsters inside an animated world in the P.L. Travers-adapted short "The Cat That Looked at a King." Amidst soaring kites, Mary Poppins touches herself up from the clouds above the listings of the 45th Anniversary Edition DVD's Disc 1 Main Menu. London chimney sweeps rejoice at Disc 2's addition of a "Disney on Broadway" section.

Last but not least is the prominently-billed bonus short The Cat That Looked At A King (9:50). Evoking Mary Poppins without looking the part, Julie Andrews stars as a woman who takes two British children inside a London chalk drawing.
In that animated world, they learn of a cat (voiced by Tracey Ullman) who challenges a knowledge-hungry king (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) to a revealing battle of wits. The charming story is adapted from a bit in P.L. Travers' third Poppins novel. Items of this nature and quality are all too rare.

Has everything from the 40th Anniversary Edition made its way onto this set? Almost. Four features from the last release do not resurface here. The set-top game "I Love to Laugh", in which players helped bring Uncle Albert down by finding specified objects, isn't found. Also lost are two "Deconstruction of a Scene" featurettes which broke down the illusions and choreography of the "Jolly Holiday" and "Step in Time" sequences. Though they were just about the weakest extras on the old set, some may object to them getting dropped in favor of less directly relevant Broadway features. More lamentable is the disappearance of the worthwhile 6-minute featurette "The Party", which took us back to the Gala World Premiere's red carpet for celebrity video footage and radio interviews following the film screening.

In addition, nothing that failed to make the transition from the Gold Collection to the 40th Anniversary Edition turns up again. Some of those casualties (a trivia game, a slightly different trailer) still aren't missed, but the 17-minute 1997 making-of piece "Practically Perfect in Every Way: The Magic Behind the Masterpiece" did have some unique value including a mustachioed Dick Van Dyke as host. While boasting some unique content, the featurette "Hollywood Goes to a Premiere" would be mostly rendered superfluous by the footage here.

MENUS and PACKAGING

Surprisingly, all new menus have been created for this set. They're lively and appropriate. Disc 1 features Mary Poppins touching herself up on a cloud above the listings. Changing winds mark transitions in 5.1 sound. Disc 2 opts for a chimney sweep silhouette motif. All static submenus are made enjoyable by the inclusion of many different score excerpts.

Inside the black keepcase, which is both slipcovered and side-snapped, we don't get a DVD guide or even a basic chapter insert. We do, however, get a Disney Movie Rewards code sheet and a booklet for Blu-ray, which Disney loves to advertise even when they don't have enough faith in it to put out a version alongside this DVD reissue. Missing little touches like an insert and colorful disc art are where this set pales next to the 40th Anniversary Edition.

Mary Poppins makes an iconic first appearance on Cherry Tree Lane by flying in on her umbrella. The Banks children and their fun adult guardians don't mind getting sooty for some musical rooftop antics.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Considering all the classic live-action Disney films ripe for a first general DVD or a proper special edition, it's kind of off-putting that the studio has instead chosen to revisit Mary Poppins so soon after its delightful 40th Anniversary Edition.
But you can't really blame the Mouse for wanting to update one of their most evergreen titles to cover the stage treatment now running on Broadway and soon to tour the nation. For the most part, this 45th Anniversary is a rerelease done right. The near-hour of new bonus material avoids feeling too promotional and almost everything from the last DVD is retained. That some things are lost and that no rebate offer is there to ease the pain of repurchasing do keep this set from earning the highest marks. But both the movie and either of its two-disc sets are practically perfect in every way.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

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The Book: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

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Reviewed January 29, 2009.