From the Dec 24, 2004 New York Times:
Poppins on the Loose: Lock Up Your Children
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Mary Poppins, in memory, is the ideal nanny. With her cartoony eyelashes, slightly Carnaby style and jauntily splayed feet, she delivers that polemic about sugar, turns chores into pleasure and wins infatuated devotion from her charges. The mother is not threatened by her, the father is not attracted to her and – all in all – the Poppins stint with the Banks family is the most edifying nanny story in a genre that is currently characterized by tales of anxiety and woe.
That’s at least how I remember Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” which had its premiere in 1964 and went on to win five Academy Awards. The reality is somewhat different. If it’s been awhile, see for yourself on the Disney Channel, which will televise the remastered version in convenient time for the movie’s 40th anniversary, the release of the DVD and a new musical that opened earlier this month in London.
In this trippy, effects-heavy, pro-pollution movie – soot is a source of great amusement – the nanny does indeed represent a blessing for Mr. and Mrs. Banks, but not because she’s good at her work (you even get the feeling it’s not a career with her), but because she whisks the kids out of their hair and then manipulates the parents into changing their ways.
She spends no time giving the kids lessons or overseeing their homework. After first cleaning their room, they do almost no chores, and even the room-cleaning is done mostly by magic. Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) is rather like the nannies on “Nanny 911” and “Supernanny” in that she doesn’t patiently care for children year in and year out; rather, she bosses around an entire family according to modish philosophies of child rearing and then, with a flourish, she’s gone.
The movie is set in 1910, in part among chimney sweeps and the bankers in high, hard collars, but the 60’s come through in just about every scene. If those who most exemplified that decade were the activists and the sybarites, this movie is clearly on the side of the sybarites – the hippies.
Mary’s first shortcoming as a nanny, in fact, is that she ignores the lady of the house, Mrs. Winifred Banks (Glynis Johns), with whom she never shares a significant scene. She evidently doesn’t take Mrs. Banks’s political activism seriously. Mrs. Banks is a saucer-eyed, doll-faced “suffragette,” copiously satirized, whose opening number is about the silly thrill of feminine civil disobedience. “She was carried off to prison!” she trills, of a friend. “Singing and scattering pamphlets the whole way!”
Though like Mrs. Banks, Mary Poppins wears the bloomers that define her as uppity, nothing she does suggests an opinion on suffrage, and her creed of cheerful duty suggests that she thinks her trouble-making patroness is wasting time. Plainly what she ought to do is what Mary does, flower-child-style: con people into giving her work and then wile away her billable hours with her boyfriend.
The boyfriend is, of course, Bert (Dick Van Dyke) – an itinerant street figure, who busks, draws and sweeps chimneys for a living. Mary and Bert don’t actually kiss here, but they have a longstanding flirtation, as they’ve known each other for a long time; it’s possible they used to have a thing. Bert’s his own kind of flower child, no doubt not ready to settle down. (Perhaps, on the other hand, he’s not interested in women. At one point, Mary praises Bert, who’s fopped up for one of the fantasy scenes, for not ever making a pass at her. “A lady need never fear when you are near. …”)
Nor does Bert aspire to get out of his vocational predicament, which requires begging people for handouts; rather, he pities the squares stuck in 9-to-5 grinds, like Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson). As he says to the children, whom he entreats to respect their dad’s tedious life: “Who looks after your father? Tell me that!”
Later he sings, “You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone” to Mr. Banks himself, in one of the movie’s best scenes, in which Bert succeeds in raising the consciousness of the Establishment.
(Mr. Banks, who imagines he’s raising children to serve the British Empire, is played adroitly by Mr. Tomlinson; Karen Dotrice, who was little Jane Banks, admits on the DVD that Mr. Tomlinson scared her, and she indeed looks intimidated.)
The movie does dramatize the unavoidable proximity of middle-class children to the kind of demimonde types – hippies, hobos, loners – who disproportionately get involved in children’s entertainment. But the makeshift populist politics of the movie, in which the working-class figures enlighten the others and then discreetly vanish, come in second to its hallucinatory aesthetic: the combination of live action, music-hall numbers, animation, stop-action, stop-motion, wirework, Disney’s elaborate audio-animatronics, and set design that combined images from Monet and Broadway’s candy colors. (Julie Andrews’s husband at the time, Tony Walton, was the film’s visual consultant and designed the costumes.)
Walt Disney, who himself heavily influenced the movie’s gimmicks, lays the goofiness on thick here. But when an umbrella dances with a cane in one scene, the penny drops. We really are tripping. Mary Poppins is at heart no English nanny, but one of those slightly dangerous American babysitters – younger and prettier than one’s parents and who, as soon as she’s alone with the kids, invites boys over and gets into the bar, all with the pretext that she’s creating a world so colorful and fun that children need no supervision in it. If she’s bribed those children right – and Mary Poppins knows how to bribe – they will never tell.