Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins

Rated: G
Length: 139 min.
Age: 2 and up.

[ Commonsense Media sez: 6 and up! However they also say: “Parents need to know that this is a fine movie for children of any age.”  I suspect the age 6 is recommended primarily for full plot comprehension, ie. the business at the bank, the suffrage movement, etc. ]

Scary factor: Nonexistant. A movie with no jeopardy! No violence! No villain! The only potential trouble spot, and one which bothered my daughter, was when dotty old Admiral Boom shoots fireworks at the chimney sweeps (none are hit, it’s all colour and noise). My daughter’s alarm, however, was due to a previous experience with noisy fireworks. We simply muted the sound during that scene until she decided she wasn’t scared anymore.

Interests: song and dance, magic

Next: for song and dance, how about the That’s Entertainment compilations, full of great sequences from MGM musicals. For more Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke, Sound of Music or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, though they’re more suitable for older audiences.

I cannot recommend this movie highly enough for young children. My daughter and I watched this movie with great frequency for an entire year, when she was aged 2 ½ to 3 ½. She couldn’t get enough of it. Mary Poppins was able to rule our world for that long because it’s funny, magical, musical, dance-ical, and absolutely charming.

Mary Poppins came out in 1964, when children watched grownup stories and were somehow able to make sense of them, and when they apparently had vast attention spans. See for example the long musical monologue of Mr. Banks outlining his happy Edwardian values…

It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910.
England rules the waves and it’s the age of men!

Or another song by Mrs. Banks about female suffrage, setting up the imminent clash of societal forces that will change Mr. Banks’ cozy little England forever.

Though we adore men individually,
We agree, that as a group, they’re ra-ther stu-pid…

I could go on about the delicious historical foreshadowing of the changing world order and modernism, heralded by the underclass impertinence and wisdom of Mary Poppins herself… but I won’t. The important thing is that my daughter sat through these ‘adult scenes’ and didn’t bat an eye. She actually memorized bits of the suffragette song!

[ Commonsense Media makes a valid point that Mary Poppins presents the fight for a woman’s right to vote in a rather frivolous light… It’s played for laughs, certainly, but this will only register with older viewers. ]

Mary Poppins is a staggering 139 minutes long! It was only later, sometime in the 70s, that a stone tablet came down from whatever children’s entertainment mountain stating that a kid’s movie shall be 76 minutes long, never ever to exceed 90 minutes. One reason for this is simply that it’s cheaper for the studios to make less movie, especially where animation is concerned. Another reason is that no one seems to have much faith in children’s attention spans these days. Can they, will they sit still for two hours or more to watch something that isn’t exploding?

The answer is yes, even at very young ages. The secret? Really fantastic songs, with dancing, two children who look like real children and not beauty pageant spawn, the endearing Dick van Dyke, and Julie Andrews in her first screen role… a debut as astonishing and magical as Mary Poppins’ descent from the clouds. She’s practically perfect in every way. (And has a Best Actress Oscar to prove it!)

The main thrust of the story is that Mr. Banks doesn’t pay enough attention to his children, and the learning curve in the story is his. By the end he has learned to laugh and enjoy life and priorize his family ahead of his job at the bank. Today a story like this would die on the drawing board. Current dogma in children’s entertainment decrees the following:

  1. the hero must be a child (so that the movie is kid-relateable),
  2. the child must be proactive, and propel the story forward (rather than just frolicking along, as Jane and Michael do),
  3. the child must learn something of epic proportions by the end, and
  4. the child must single-handedly save the day. If at all possible, they should save the entire universe, or at least civilization-as-we-know-it.

In Mary Poppins the world isn’t saved but the Banks family is changed for the better. The children learn a gentle lesson about sympathizing with their father’s situation, but Mr. Banks is the heart of the final joyous scene, in which the entire family skips out of the house, hand in hand, to fly a kite together. It’s a bittersweet ending – as they skip off Mary Poppins quietly exits the same way she came. No farewells, just a stiff upper lip and a cheery smile.

There are so many ways this story would be changed if it was made today, not the least of which would be the addition of a tear-stained, heart-wrenching farewell between her and the children. It’s an understatement to say that I rather like the way it was made. In fact, even though I have seen it dozens (and dozens) (and dozens) of times, I still enjoy this movie!

postscript: When we returned after a long absence to Mary Poppins one night, my now-4 1/2 year old girl suddenly had a slew of questions she’d never asked before:

why does he shoot his cannon? why do they have to hold onto the furniture? why does he float up in the air when he laughs? why does the old man have a cane? why do the people at the bank want their money? what is tuppence? do the birds eat tuppence? what is ‘sacked’? why does the old man go up in the air?

etc. etc. Not only that, but on this viewing I had to continually pause the film to explain all the jokes in the “I Love to Laugh” sequence… in detail. She wanted to understand why they made people laugh. She wanted to know why people were feeling the way they did. And why they did the things they did. Somewhere along the way, somewhere between 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 she went from being able to blithely watch a movie and just go along with it, not expecting to understand everything, to wanting to understand every aspect of what is happening and why. When you find yourself in the position of trying to explain what a run on the bank is to a four year old, then you are fully into the joyful challenge that is parenting!

(DVD available at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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