With the Lakeside Upper School’s spring production of “Mary Poppins” coming upon us, we should perhaps examine the original film. Disney’s 1969 “Mary Poppins” is one of its most iconic films; with its catchy songs and musical numbers it has charmed past and present generations of young children alike despite being over 50 years old. Rewatching it even as a teenager beyond its target age range, I found myself both charmed by the characters and somewhat inspired by the messages embedded in the film, although somewhat simple.
The film follows Jane and Michael Banks, the children of an uptight banker, George Banks, and his wife, Winnifred. After Jane and Michael chase after a kite in the park and are subsequently lost by the newest in a succession of nannies, the nanny quits and the family is left to find a new one. After a strange wind blows away the candidates for a new nanny, the titular character Mary Poppins arrives as their new nanny, who brings a previously unseen sense of joy and fun to the household. It might have been the similar time periods in which the movies were produced or just the fact that Julie Andrews plays the “caretaker” figure (quite charmingly) in both films, but rewatching “Mary Poppins” felt reminiscent of “The Sound of Music”, albeit a bit less serious in tone and themes.
Musically, I think the movie delivers well—the musical numbers leave perhaps a greater legacy than any other part of the film itself. Almost all the musical numbers of the film on the Banks children’s adventures with Mary Poppins are outstanding in their ability to reflect the frivolity and freedom their adventures bring. For instance, the fiddle-ly nature of the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” makes it catchy and memorable. It’s also worth pointing out how the children’s adventures allow the children watching to live out experiences they could probably only dream of, and the depiction of the bankers’ solemness and love for money are cartoonish yet somewhat reflective of our society even today.
While the most catchy and memorable musical numbers are the ones that happen in times of the most heightened emotion, when characters need to sing about how much fun they’re having, I believe the underappreciated parts of the film are the more subdued tunes which, individually, have some underlying messages – after all, though most children remember the most singable, catchy songs of a movie, I think what really makes a children’s movie is the themes and messages it brings to the populace. Take the song “Feed the Birds”, which Mary Poppins sings as a lullaby to lull the Banks children to sleep with. While it might not be as catchy or singable as some of the other songs in the film, the messages the song conveys to young children, echoed and reinforced in the plot later in the film, are quite simple but important. Mary Poppins sings of an old woman who sits by the chapel and feeds the birds for “tuppence a bag”, encouraging generosity to those in need—not only the birds, but the old woman as well. While only tangentially related to the underlying messages in the movie, I think “Feed the Birds” is one of the more underrated songs of the film.
Mary Poppins’s positive influence on the Banks children and the subsequent positive implications on the family dynamic as a whole shows us that we must find the fun and joy in the things we do; this is still particularly relevant in the current state of the world in which a lot of people find work to be just a daily grind, a mindset that in my experience has permeated into the realm of school-aged children as well. Perhaps it is not only the catchy songs but also the relevancy of this message throughout the fifty-some years in which the movie has been released that has allowed it to retain its place in our culture.
It is worth noting that the themes explored in this film are more simplistic than those explored in more modern children’s films today. I do like the current trend of more specific messages being conveyed throughout modern children’s films—for instance, the exploration of toxic positivity and depression in “Inside Out”—by sacrificing the addition of the plethora of hyperactive, catchy tunes of “Mary Poppins”, but I think there is still some sort of charm in the way the themes of “Mary Poppins” are almost universally applicable regardless of the time period. Given society’s ever-changing views on the messages we should send our children through the media they consume, however, these approaches might just be a reflection of the respective time periods in which they were released.