One of the greatest children’s films of all time, Disney’s 1964 adaptation of P. L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins is magical, strange and thoroughly surreal. Children step into living paintings, nannies fly around on umbrellas and tea parties are held on the ceiling.
The movie made Disney a pot of money and propelled Julie Andrews to stardom in her first film role. If you’re into Broadway-style music, the Sherman brothers’ songs are fantastic, too, and numbers such as A Spoonful of Sugar and the inexplicable Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious have embedded themselves in the landscape of popular culture.
The film, which is set in Edwardian London, is based on the first of Travers’ eight Poppins books. The titular Poppins (Andrews) is a stern but kind nanny who is brought into the middle-class home of the authoritarian Mr Banks (David Tomlinson) to look after his vaguely naughty children. Poppins, aided by cheery Cockney chimney sweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke), teaches Banks the value of spending time with his children – but not before the kids have experienced some magical adventures.
The making of Mary Poppins has passed into Hollywood lore, and the early days of the production were recently filmed as Saving Mr Banks . Walt Disney promised his children that he’d make a film of the book but Travers, an Australian living in Britain, hated the idea of Americans meddling with her creation. When Disney finally did get the rights, the contract stipulated that Travers herself would be on set in Hollywood to oversee how her characters were portrayed.
The relationship between Travers and Disney was not smooth: she hated the idea of mixing animation with live-action scenes, hated the idea of it being a musical and felt that Disney was dumbing down her work. Travers wasn’t even invited to the premiere – she had to blag a ticket from a Disney executive – and she complained about the film to Walt Disney afterwards.
Still, Disney knew how to make movies, and Mary Poppins became a critical hit as well as a box-office success. The first live-action children’s film to experiment with surrealism, it won five Oscars in 1965, including one for Andrews. A sequel is planned for 2018.
The film’s only misstep was to have American Van Dyke talk in a Cockney accent. This is generally regarded as the worst such accent ever committed to film. Van Dyke claims this is because his voice coach was actually an Irishman who couldn’t speak Cockney.
Mary Poppins will be screened on July 23 at the Hong Kong Film Archive in Sai Wan Ho as part of the International Children’s Film Carnival. Tickets, through Urbtix, are HK$30/HK$60