Thinking Slightly Too Hard About A Disney Classic



Writers don’t sit down to enjoy films in quite the same way as civilians.

We get distracted by mis-en-scene, subtext, plot holes and red herrings. We watch out for foreshadowing, signalling and dialogue that’s too on-the-nose. As a result, we tend to prefer ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ over ‘The Lion King’ because the former has some kind of scientific grounding whereas although the latter has literary allusions to ‘Hamlet’, they’re delivered by talking animals.

Which brings us to the problem of the original ‘Mary Poppins’ (1964). One gets the feeling that grumpy PL Travers didn’t really think through her six magical books, and that Walt, in a desperate effort to please the old bat, followed her words rather than his logic. Because for any writer the film is riddled with flaws.

To start with, we know and have to accept that Mary Poppins is a magical being like Santa Claus, but does she help out many other children, and if so how long does she spend with each family? ‘Until the wind changes’ isn’t very exact. Where does she live when she’s not got a placement? ‘In the clouds’ isn’t good enough, partly because as we’ve seen from the opening credits, the clouds aren’t very stable.

Of course if she’s ageless this problem can be addressed. But if she is ageless, why is she always checking herself in mirrors? What she sees won’t change. She blasts away all the other job applicants and simply takes over without formal credentials. Luckily she’s Julie Andrews, who is clearly not real, so we accept that. But the Banks family don’t seem to need a nanny at all. The children are perfect, the house is spotless and even though the wife is out on suffragette marches she still manages to bring her husband’s sherry on time. If Mary Poppins tried to boss around a modern family she’d be locked in the basement.

As for Bert, I’m not sure I’d trust him around children. Apart from that ridiculous accent, possibly adopted to hide the fact that he’s wanted by the police, is he a vagrant? He seems to have an assortment of gig-economy jobs; pavement artist, music man, chimney sweep, all cash in hand. And who is he to the nanny? Is he a former date, a reformed stalker? In the song ‘It’s a Jolly Holiday’, Mary Poppins sings, ‘You never think of pressing your advantage, forbearance is the hallmark of your name, a lady needn’t fear when you are here.’ It’s an odd remark to suddenly come out with, even in a lyric. Had he acted inappropriately in the past?

And what did the children do that made everyone so terrified of them? They seem so nice. Were they like Patty Duke in ‘The Bad Seed’ or Regan in ‘The Exorcist’, able to be evil then turn charming at a moment’s notice? Is that why they had Elsa Lanchester – the actual Bride of Frankenstein – as their previous nanny, and even she was scared?

As for Admiral Boom, why has no-one slapped an antisocial order on him for releasing explosives at home? Where is the Noise Abatement Society when you need it?

That uncle who laughs on the ceiling, presumably he has a watered-down version of Mary Poppins’ powers. It runs in the family. It’s a good job he makes Michael Banks laugh because he’s going to grow up to be like his father otherwise. He’s far too obsessed about that tuppence and banking in general. Fidelity Fiduciary must be a pretty shit bank if there’s a run caused by a single children’s deposit.

In fact, when you think about it the children are left worse off when Mary Poppins leaves. Mum’s still out protesting, they have no nanny and dad’s lost his job. How will they pay the mortgage now, given that they live in Hampstead? Kite-flying is merely a displacement therapy at best and avoidance of reality at worst.

I have possibly overthought this.

I thought about this because I have already seen A Certain Big Christmas Film, and we’re not allowed to discuss it until the end of November. Meanwhile, for old times’ sake, let’s have Pogo’s delightful remix again.


11 comments on “Thinking Slightly Too Hard About A Disney Classic”

  1. John says:

    I can see you now with a volume of Grimm in your lap muttering to yourself: “How could a witch build a house of cookies and gingerbread? How could it possibly withstand the harsh German winters and rainstorms of Bavaria? Everything would melt and crumble. And how can she heat the place? Wouldn’t it all be set on fire and burn to an inedible crispy pile of ashen crumbs?”

    Patty Duke was not in The Bad Seed, BTW. It was Patty McCormack. Your carping seems to have impaired your usually vast knowledge of movie trivia.

  2. Colin says:

    You haven’t overthought it, a very funny spot on blog. Put a big smile on my face after a hard day. Thank you Chris!

  3. Richard Burton says:

    That’s an well put snark. I hadn’t thought that being in the biz had spoiled your enjoyment of it that much! Olivia Colman has ruined Mary Poppins for me, I can’t watch it now without hearing her being Zombie Poppins. “Spit, spot, Poppins needs flesh…” And her criticising Mr Works-in-a-bank, as he desperately tries to kill her.

  4. Jill Q. says:

    Overthinking things can be fun, but most of those things you mention are in the books as well. Aside from Bert’s terrible accent. there’s no explaining that.
    My understanding was Walt made the mother a suffragette b/c he was afraid the mid 20th century American audience wouldn’t understand why a middle class family had a nanny. Then in the end when the mother puts her suffragette sash on the kite, it’s supposed to be a sign she’s giving up her political ways and she’s going to spend more time at home with the children. I wish I was kidding.
    I can’t remember where I read that, but it seems pretty plausible for the time and place.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Oh my word. Its a children’s story – for children.

    As children in late Victorian / early Edwardian London the idea of a banker father (never there, distant) and a typical middle class mother (sorting out the servants, organising a large house – which would be the equivalent of running a small business), the idea of a nanny who wasn’t straight-laced and encouraged the adventure of climbing around roofs and talk to those very interesting ruffians and ne’er do wells, chimney sweeps, consumptive chimney boys, one-legged old soldiers, women selling bird seed was pretty appealing.

    Travers was mining the seam of The Water Babies and, fairly obviously, Peter Pan but grounding the children’s adventures in something a little closer to the real world than Neverland and lost boys who fought with pirates and Red Injuns.

    I always thought that Mary Poppins was a precursor to Dr. Who – maybe she IS Dr. Who given the latest incarnation.

  6. SteveB says:

    I love Mary Poppins (the film, never read the books)
    Aiui it was written round the Shermans’ songs

  7. Bruce Rockwood says:

    How about a film based on E.Nesbit. How would we view that today?
    And then Doctor Doolittle. As with Travers, there are lots of interesting period pieces to mine.

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    Mirrors, vanity, she maybe related to Snow Whites step-mother. The sky is fine, if she goes far enough say beyond morning who knows where she will end up. Until the wind changes, it’s as if she knows what will happen, does she see the future or create a destiny that’s impossible to avoid. Bert, accent apart is fine, she knows he’s fine but what about the other people she knows, a dark Bert twin? Children should be seen & not heard, and these children are not that, heard and having run away not seen, and poor nanny has lost the children she is supposed too look after, tell the head of the house.

    One of the senior partners tells George that the laughing banker actually died and George is given a seat on the board, the old man was the happiest he had been in years so that’s alright then. The family is safe financially.

    The Admiral is care in the community actually working, what’s a little noise to one persons freedom, next you’ll be trying to ban bonfire night, or proposing a sequel, oh they’ve already made it and it’s due out soon.

    Even the BBC are remaking Watership Down as mini series, I do remember a different TV series of Watership Down.


  9. snowy says:

    She’s a witch, all the signs are there if you look for them.

    He is her demonic familiar, while not apparent to the audience, he has the ability to change how he appears to others.

    The bank is a pyramid scam run by Poppins, she scarpers with all the dosh just before the whole thing collapses.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    The whole ‘Is Mary Poppins The Doctor?’ has been discussed in great depth on some other channels, and, to me, a very long time Doctor Who fan, is slightly annoying. Magic always gets very short shrift in Doctor Who – the writers (at least of the original series) tended to side with Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that ‘Magic’ (and I mean big stuff, like weather manipulation, not sawing the lady in half, etc.) was simply ‘Science’ observed by people not equipped to understand it as such. It’s an idea mentioned in the 1959 broadcast of Nigel Neale’s ‘Quatermass And The Pit’. The nearest that Doctor Who has got to Mary Poppins has to be ‘Missy’, played so brilliantly by Michelle Gomez. I was saddened when she was killed off – but was she? (and I try not to think about this too hard, as it gives me a headache) – at the end of ‘The Doctor Falls’ John Simm’s Master, utterly horrified that his next regeneration will result in Missy, who obviously has a good side, kills her, but she kills him, presumably causing him to regenerate into her… To exist, and go through everything, to end up on a doomed Mondasian colony ship, meeting her previous incarnation, and to be killed by him, but not before she kills him, causing him to regenerate…

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I’ve just read the above, and want to kick myself for misspelling the name of the creator of ‘Quatermass’. I know damn well that it’s actually ‘Nigel Kneale’. As I’ve been fascinated with the ‘Quatermass’ stories since the 1970’s, this is almost unforgiveable.

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