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Every time I watch Mary Poppins, I can’t help wondering, “Why isn’t there an attraction at a Disney theme park devoted to Walt’s crowning achievement in live action films?” I’ll get back to my rant in a moment.
For new readers of my blog, and those who may have forgotten this vital piece of information in the overwhelming onslaught of things to remember, I don’t really do reviews. Nor do I use this space to offer Disney news. There are plenty of very good sites and blogs, unofficial and unofficial, that I think do these things very well. You can find some of the places I regularly visit on my page here. I prefer to offer my thoughts on topics that inspire me that are related to Walt and his legacy.
I watch Mary Poppins now and again, and always enjoy it for its pure entertainment magic. But, I watched it the other night, prompted, I suppose, by the tsunami of promotions surrounding the soon to be released Mary Poppins Returns. I’m not a huge fan of the continued rollout of “live action” remakes of classic Disney animated films. In an earlier post, Drunk on Do-Overs, I said that I would keep an open mind. But, I would prefer to have Disney give us something new. And, I certainly don’t want to see an older “classic” redone frame for frame, just because the technology now allows directors to create what was once only possible through animation.
With the way current Hollywood survives on sequels, it seems almost impossible that Walt rarely looked back. During his life, there were no sequels, even if the movie was a critical or box office success. No son of Bambi, Pinocchio Returns, or Dumbo 2. Unafraid of what his critics would say, after animated successes like Snow White and Pinocchio, Walt gave his audience Fantasia – not a traditional feature animated film. World War II and his own creative drive pushed him to explore live action films. Then, of course, came Disneyland. Walt was a restless creator, driven by inspiration, not be profit.
Most critics and Disney historians say that Mary Poppins is Walt’s finest live action feature. Most good directors will tell you that half the credit for a film’s success starts with casting the right actors. Accounts of the making of the film tell us that Walt made most, if not all of the casting choices, including betting that a young actress with no screen experience could carry the title role. Decades ahead of the Harry Potter series, Disney cast many of the roles with talented, but overlooked character actors including, Glynnis Johns (Winnifred), Elsa Lanchester (Katie Nana), and Arthur Treacher (Constable). Oscar winner Jane Darwell (Bird Woman) and Oscar nominee Ed Wynn (Uncle Albert) were nearing the end of their careers. And, like Walt, would live only a few more years. Aside from Dick Van Dyke and maybe Jane Darwell, depending on the viewer’s age, none of the actors would have been very recognizable to American audiences in the 1960s. All of the performances, including, of course Julie Andrews, David Tomlinson and Dick Van Dyke, even years later, resulted in characters that are believable, funny and heartwarming, even amidst the fantasy world they inhabit.
Aside from having a magic casting touch, it would not surprise me to learn that Walt encouraged the prodigious use of matte painting, and flying by wire, as well as Disney developed technical effects. Traveling matte shots with live action and the Jolly Holiday sequences were accomplished with a technology called Yellow Screen (sodium vapor process). Interested parties can find a great, detailed look at the Mary Poppins matte work on this website. It’s amazing to see how many scenes were actually accomplished with matte paintings. They are hard to distinguish from the standard shots. As Walt did with color film, years earlier with the Silly Symphonies where Disney locked up exclusive rights to use the newest process, Disney owned the only camera in the world that could accomplish the yellow screen process. Walt also included audio animatronics. Today, these effects would all be accomplished with CG.
Anyone who things George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic invented these kind of special effects, should realize they were just following in Walt’s footsteps as a film innovator. As was often the case, Walt didn’t invent any of these advancements. But, he did realize their potential where others might not have. By themselves, the brilliant use of special effects, which garnered an Oscar, would have been notable. However, Walt would never accept flash without substance. The story and the characters take center stage, supported by the visual effects.
While the story is dominated by the magic that surrounds Mary, there are some themes at the heart of the film that still resonate decades later and are, perhaps, more relevant today, than when it premiered.
It goes unsaid, that the Banks children are home schooled. While they worked their way through a string of nannies, the children are clearly intelligent, curious and inventive. It doesn’t seem that their parents are particularly involved in their upbringing. Winnifred has her cause, as a Suffragette. Women are still fighting for equal rights. And George, while hard working and successful, is content to “pat them on the head and send them off to bed”. It’s almost as if the Banks’ mirror our twentieth century two income families.
While limited parental guidance was the norm in upper middle class families of the day, even the Constable seems to recognize how unfazed the parents are that the children have been without supervision for most of the afternoon. Any of us who are parents could surely use a reminder that what our children become and the relationships with their care-gives could be linked to the experiences of their early years. Given how quickly children of the 21st century seem to grow up, it’s even more important.
But, even with proper attention, it’s no secret that almost everyone absorbs things better if they are shown practical applications of the lesson or behaviors. A “spoonful of sugar” doesn’t just make the medicine easier to take, it also makes even the most mundane tasks less tedious. Instead of memorizing, anyone who learns music at an early age, used Every Good Boy Does Fine, to remember musical notes. Or, friendly competitions to see who could pick up the most trash or a game of Horse to hone basketball skills. How many of you think Michael would normally have wanted to tidy up the nursery again unless it was fun.
Learning, however, should be balanced with encouragement to use one’s imagination.
Here is where Mary certainly excels. Even adults should use the other half of their brains. But, you don’t need to pop into a chalk painting. I love the way Kris Kringle, in the 1937 Miracle on 34th Street talks, about imagination as a place, the ImagineNation. Thinking creatively can add a whole arsenal of problem solving solving skills to day to day problems as well as tackling bigger issues like hunger, poverty and homelessness. This is often referred to as out of the box thinking. I think we should forget about the boxes and spend less time complaining that things can’t be fixed or changed. As Mary shows the Banks family, a fresh look at things can make every day a kite flying day.
I started with the lack of presence of Mary in the parks. Other than occasional appearances by Mary and Bert and the Pearly Band, Mary Poppins is MIA. We’ve now had two different Snow White themed attractions, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad (one half of a package film), Song of the South (kept under lock and key), but nothing from the movie that won more Oscars (5) than any other Disney release. I’m not the only one who thinks it deserved a place in the parks. Here’s a video of Disney Imagineering Legend, Tony Baxter describing his idea for a Jolly Holiday attraction.
I’m glad to hear that there are rumors of bring Mary to Epcot’s England Pavilion at Walt Disney World’. But, rumors don’t often turn into reality, no matter what the sources may be. I’m also glad that we can still take some important lessons from Walt’s masterpiece at the same time we fall under its magical spell.