What follows is the review of the original "Mary Poppins" film that appeared in the Sept. 25, 1964, edition of Newsday. A sequel, "Mary Poppins Returns," starring Emily Blunt as the nanny, hits theaters Dec. 19.
Mary Poppins pulls a tape measure that describes personalities from her magical bag of tricks and applies it to herself. "Hmmm," she sniffs, "Mary Poppins … practically perfect in every way." The children in her charge, awed by her strange powers, agree. The children who watch her work in this new Walt Disney extravaganza, "Mary Poppins," will agree enthusiastically. I don't.
It goes without saying that, like all Disney productions, "Mary Poppins" is splendid for the cartoon clubbers. Lots of color, lots of animation, lots of gimmicks, not even the remotest resemblance of a love angle, the film qualifies on all fronts as ideal antiseptic entertainment. But adults who go along for the ride expecting something more from a cast featuring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Glynis Johns, Ed Wynn and Elsa Lanchester, may find the going rough.
The story is based on the heroine of Pamela Travers' children's books, a mysterious nanny (Miss Andrews) who comes and goes with the wind bringing love and order to British families. Disney sends her into a home where father Banks (David Tomlinson) is a rising stuffed-shirt executive, mother Banks (Glynis Johns) is a scatterbrained battler for women's rights and neglected little Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) are a pair of devils devoted to driving nannies to distraction.
But Mary Poppins is one nanny who turns the tables. Snapping out commands like an RAF drill sergeant, Mary gets the children to clean up their room, fly their kites on schedule and get to bed without any nonsense. "Spit-spot" is her catchphrase. "Hurry along now." How does she do it? With Disney magic, that's how.
A click of Mary's fingers and the toys march into their basket. Click-click! The clothes return to the closet. Click-click! The beds make themselves. Chaos becomes order in seconds. Of course, this clickety-split automation leaves much time for fun, and between them, Disney and Mary concoct enough weird games to flood a carnival sideshow. Mary leads the children sliding up banisters; into a sidewalk painting drawn by her own friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke); up to the ceiling for a gravity-defying tea party with Ed Wynn. And before long, she straightens out stuffed-shirt father Banks and flies off with her umbrella when the wind shifts.
Whew! Hard to swallow and, after an hour or so, hard to sit through. There is nothing wrong with good, clean fantasy, if there is some sort of explanation to make it more than just a succession of camera tricks. "Mary Poppins never explains," authoress Travers said recently. Neither does Disney, so we never learn who Mary is, where she came from or why. This is the film's most gaping flaw.
There are others. Bob and Dick Sherman's music, while it gives us the pleasure of Miss Andrews' lovely voice, is light and forgettable, with the exception of "Chim-Chim-Charee" and one or two others. The story, typically Disney, is rife with empty homilies and depthless characterizations. Also, we are left to wonder about the origin of Mary and Bert's friendship.
Still, "Mary Poppins" is being plugged as Disney's "greatest motion picture achievement," and as a technical achievement, it probably is. The scenes coordinating live action and animation are beautifully done. The stereophonic sound is matchless. More than a year of pre-production preparation went into the film, and it shows.
The story is also well-handled by the cast. Van Dyke is a natural as a happy-go-lucky chimney sweep, establishing himself as a song-and-dance man with a winning personality. Miss Andrews, making her screen debut, acquits herself nicely, although she isn't required to do much more than perform Disney's wizardry. But, to borrow from the script, "Mary Poppins" is "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" for children only.