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Saturday Matinee #79, Great Movie Ride Summer Movie Marathon, Week One: Mary Poppins (August 27, 1964) & "The Cat That Looked At A King" (December 14, 2004) - published July 7, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

Saturdays and summer vacations are often the best times to have movie marathons. I rarely have time to sit down and have a back-to-back-to-back marathon of films, so I'll usually spread the movies out across several days. For example, in anticipation of Marvel's The Avengers, I watched each of the five films - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger - in the days leading up to the premiere. Last year, I prepared myself for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides by watching each of the previous three films every Friday before the fourth film hit theatres. These marathons usually help to get me in a summer blockbuster mood, in which I'll be inundated with splashy effects and loud noises more often than anyone should be.

There's something exciting about just letting yourself get absorbed into a series of movies. You become a part of that world, and you enjoy moments and situations that generally don't occur in real life. People sing and dance. Fight scenes are elaborate and choreographed. Explosions are thrilling and only marginally life-threatening. To celebrate summer movie marathons, Saturday Matinee will devote the whole summer to a very special movie marathon. Each week, we'll take a look at one or two films represented in Disney Hollywood Studios' The Great Movie Ride, along with an accompanying Disney short that fits thematically for viewing. This week's film is the incomparable 1964 classic Mary Poppins, coupled with its 40th Anniversary 2004 companion short, "The Cat That Looked At A King."


Mary Poppins

By now, every Disney fan knows the story of Mary Poppins. The wind was in the east, Katie Nanna had just left, Winifred Banks sang about the suffrage movement, and George Banks was too busy banking in 1910 to pay attention to his children Jane and Michael. Mary Poppins flew down - parrot umbrella in hand - and effectively became the new nanny. She took the children through outings in chalk pictures and on the ceiling, accompanied by jack-of-all-trades Bert. Eventually, Mary Poppins gets Mr. Banks to agree to take Jane and Michael with him to work. A fight and misunderstanding at the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank lead Jane and Michael to run away, ultimately ending up on a rooftop with Bert and Mary Poppins. Mr. Banks is fired, suddenly learns what's really important, and goes back to be with his family. They go fly a kite as the wind turns to the west. Unnoticed, Mary Poppins leaves, her job done and the Banks family now happy and intact.


"The Cat That Looked At A King"

When we catch up with Julie Andrews forty years later, she accompanies two young children into a new chalk picture. They are in the throne room of a king who desires to know everything, a task which leads to him ignoring his long-suffering queen. When the king meets a cat, the pair agree to a battle of wits, betting the king's throne. In each question, the king looks to facts and figures, the statistical and empirical. However, each answer is a bit more philosophical, touching upon inner struggles and emotional responses. Through these questions, the king suddenly realizes that he's been missing out on a life worth living, not researching. He and his now-happy queen thank the cat for helping him.

Mary Poppins came at a time in Disney history when Walt was a bona fide reigning figure in Hollywood. By the early 1960's, Walt had firmly established himself as a formidable force to be reckoned with through his animation, live-action, television, and theme park projects. Each had reached varying degrees of success, all high enough for Walt to personally handle a project that would require his utmost attention and care. The result is a film that is a culmination of everything Walt had learned in filmmaking. Traces of his earlier projects can be seen throughout Mary Poppins, yet are still fresh enough to stand on their own. For example, setting a live-action figure in an animated world was nothing new for Walt, who pioneered the process with his "Alice in Cartoonland" comedies in the 1920's and revisited again in films like 1945's The Three Caballeros and 1946's Song of the South, both of which also featured the inversion - an animated character in the live-action world. As technologies evolved and become more sophisticated, so did his own craft. When Mary Poppins, Bert, and the children enter the chalk drawing, the merging of the two worlds is seamless and uncanny. Breathtaking landscapes and matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw helped enhance these illusions, bringing to life a world one can only dream of visiting. Expansive sets ranged from the entirety of Cherry Tree Lane to the "trekless jungle" of the London rooftops. It's hard to believe that the entirety of the film were shot on soundstages.

From a storytelling point of view, the filmmakers did a marvelous job at conveying Mary Poppins as a no-nonsense woman. She's tamer than Travers' original character, who can be a bit of a pill at times. But there are still traces of her cheekiness, such as when Mary sassily replies to Mr. Banks, "I never explain anything!" or fervently denies, "A respectable person like me in a horse race? How dare you suggest such a thing!" She also can command attention from anything, whether it is due to her own brash personality, or her magic. Nursery rooms come to life and stand at attention at the snap of her fingers, but also bring things to a grinding halt at the sound of her voice ("Well, that was very... thank you, now... WHEN YOU'VE QUITE FINISHED!" was always my favorite line to repeat as a child). And even within the animated world, there's an unwritten respect for Mary Poppins that shows she's highly important even when out of her own element. Her stern but loving nature makes for a rather mysterious character, even one who's practically perfect in every way.

Little is divulged about her personal life or past, because we don't need to know such trivial details. She's brought into our world (well, the Banks' world) in order to fix it. Once that job is done, she's off to help another child. There's no time to form close attachments that make the going-away even harder. As she said, "And what would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?" As a child, I never really understood that line. I was more upset that Mary Poppins was leaving Jane and Michael. But as I grew older, I realized that Mary was not there for Jane and Michael's benefit. Sure, she was their nanny and took them to horse races in chalk drawings, tea parties on the ceiling, and gateway chimneys. But ultimately, Mary Poppins was there for Mr. Banks, who essentially becomes the heart and soul of the story. He's the one that goes through a transformation; he's the one that realizes what's important in his life. She privately does love Jane and Michael as her parrot umbrella is close to revealing, but she'd dare not show or admit it. If she did, then the children would not be able to "go back" to their newly-reformed father.

Thus, Mary Poppins - as wonderful as she is - is not meant to take us away from our worlds. I used to watch the movie constantly in order to be in such a world where chalk drawings come to life, tea parties are on the ceiling, and chimneys were a gateway to another world. But these excursions are not meant to be a great escape. They were meant to show us why we had to remain level-headed and responsible. Granted, there is always still room for fun - like flying a kite - but the most important thing that Mary Poppins taught us is that we should find that balance for both. Mr. Banks was nothing but business, Jane and Michael were nothing but play. By the end of the film, both learned that the other is a necessity, and one that allows them to finally mesh together as a family.

Accompanying Mary Poppins since 2004 is the short "The Cat That Looked At A King," based on a story found in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the third in the "Mary Poppins" book series. It marked Julie Andrews' return to her Mary Poppins roots of forty years past. The short doesn't specify if she's playing herself or Mary Poppins, although IMDb credits her as the latter. A lot of the short suggests it, too. Julie repeats several lines from the first movie, and of course, she leads the two children into a chalk drawing. By the end of the short, the three have returned to the "real world," which she denies ever leaving. However, as the children run off, Julie lingers and looks back at her shadow on the sidewalk. We should all know that silhouette anywhere! And she does too, as she gives us a knowing wink before walking away.

Whether or not this short acts as the official sequel or not, "The Cat That Looked At A King" is still one of Disney's best shorts in recent years. It was animated primarily by Answer Studio, a Japanese-based animation company that was comprised mainly of former animators for Disney Animation's Japan unit. An article from Animation World Network (http://www.awn.com/articles/profiles/japan-s-new-answer-studio-builds-animations-past-and-future) notes that the short spent three months in production, though this doesn't include Disney's storyboarding and post-production work, which were handled by Walt Disney Feature Animation. I've always liked the visual design for "The Cat That Looked At A King." The designs for the king and queen always reminded me of a marriage between the UPA animation style (best known for Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mr. Magoo) and 1950's Disney animation. The characters are stylized and based on certain shapes like UPA, while the vivid colors and flowing articulations/movements are pure Disney. A feature film could rise from this short if Disney were so inclined, and I certainly would be first in line at the theatre.


A small sample of the versions of Mary Poppins on home media, Percival sold separately.

Mary Poppins has always been one of Disney's "evergreen" titles: a film that is continually available on home media without going out of print. Since 1980, the film has been released to every major home media format, usually more than once for the more popular formats. Just to give you an idea of the number of releases the film has seen:

VHS: 1980, 1985, 1988, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2004
Betamax: 1980
CED VideoDisc: 1981
LaserDisc: 1989, 1992, 1993, 1997
DVD: 1998, 2000, 2004, 2009

Neither the film nor the short have been released on Blu-Ray, although when such a release occurs, it will be worth the wait. Since 2009, Disney has undertaken an extensive restoration of the film, going back to the original camera negatives, effects elements, and final negatives in order to restore and re-composite the entire film from scratch. In addition, the audio tracks are also undergoing restoration, using the original masters and remixing for both the original 4.0 Surround and Blu-Ray's 7.1 Surround. This is expected to be a very time-consuming and demanding project, hence the long wait. No date has been assigned yet, but 2014 is the film's 50th Anniversary, a prime chance to celebrate one of Disney's greatest films. That year will potentially see the theatrical release of Saving Mr. Banks, a new film by Disney that will tell two stories: the childhood of "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson), and her negotiations - or more appropriately, her clashes - with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for the 1964 film.

 

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