Movie Review - Mary Poppins

Robert Stevenson
Walt Disney Productions

Mary Poppins is quite a movie. Quite a movie, if you consider your clipboard almost a companion come movie time, are trying to take notes on all the negative content in the film, and have fallen behind in your shorthand lessons by several months. And your chances of enjoying a movie are always lessened when you can remember twenty objectionable elements from when you were ten. I knew, going into it, that I wouldn’t have to worry much about the “usual” stuff (violence, sexual content and foul language), but I rather suspected that the worldview problems in Mary Poppins would be more in number and deeper in nature than what I could bring to memory from the last time I saw it. Two hours, nineteen minutes, and the front, back and margins of two lined pages later, I decided that my suspicions were justified.

Sexual Content:
It turned out, however, that I was slightly mistaken on the point of sexual content. Skirts are raised high multiple times, as part of dance numbers but not at all innocently. A couple dances in each other’s arms. Mr. and Mrs. Banks (or rather the actors, one of whom was married at the time) kiss.

If I thought that those who read my reviews would simply take my word on the evilness of a particular film (or, rather, if I actually thought they should), I would simply say that feminism abounds, that parents are declared to be naturally wrong, that children are declared to be naturally right, and that various other anti-family or otherwise unorthodox doctrines are strenuously promoted in the name of entertainment. But I can’t simply say that; I must elaborate.

This is going to be a long review, but if you knew what rating I gave it, you’d understand why I can’t much help the length. You may skip to the end and find out what my conclusion was, but you’ll probably have to come back and read the rest of the review, anyway.

It won’t take too much to persuade the reader of the feministic bent of
Mary Poppins. Anything that is set to music is always going to have a more lasting impact on the audience. Here are the lyrics; you can look them up, or, rather, you can probably remember them from when you were ten. “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” It is true that, though we didn’t know it when the song was sung, this might have been a case of the pot calling the kettle black, if it were not for the fact that Mrs. Banks doesn’t need to be in a group for her intellectual deficiencies to come through.

Of course, company always helps. Mrs. Banks happens to be an enthusiast for the women’s suffrage movement, which means more than simply a plethora of “Votes for Women!” references. You have to be careful when using terms like “political equality and equal rights with men,” because when you clamor for “equal” and really mean “the same”, you can’t ask for preferential treatment without being guilty of great hypocrisy. That seems to be fine with Mrs. Banks, who actually glories in the excitement of her comrades being “carted off to prison” or “clapped in irons
again.” She herself discusses with the maid her plans to gather with her fellow suffragettes to “throw things at the Prime Minister” - in her case, spoiled eggs. Of course, if she wants “equality” to mean “the same as”, I suppose that would give the Prime Minister the right to throw things back at her. But I digress. Suffice it to say that “peaceful protest” wasn’t the plan for the day, and that resorting to illegal behavior in order to gain legal rights is not characteristic of someone whose vote is likely to improve the well-being of the nation.

Briefly, I will mention another quote from Mrs. Banks’ musical number: “No more the meek and mild subservients, we.” Subservient can either mean “subordinate in capacity or function” or “obsequious; servile.”* I have serious doubts as to whether women (plural) of the pre-Edwardian era would be perceived as truly servile by an unbiased mind, so the “we” is out, whatever we may say about Mrs. Banks, herself. If she was referring to the first definition, however, let those who read 1 Peter 3:1-6 and Ephesians 5:22-24 call sweet, idiotic Mrs. Banks for what she is: an adversary of the Word of God.

The women in
Mary Poppins are not the only problem. It is the rare film, indeed, where a message of feminism does not come through its portrayal of the opposite sex just as strongly. In this story, there are essentially two kinds of male characters (not counting the “reformed” ones at the end): the overbearing kind, which are repulsive, and the immature, submissive kind, which are very nice. Mr. Banks is of the former, Bert of the latter, kind. Mr. Banks, being the chief antagonist, displays behavior that is truly improper. He is completely insensitive to the needs of his wife and children, and is forever expressing impatience with them, simply because they are female or very young. The problem with the story is not that the antagonist displays antagonistic behavior, but that the alternative is so unworthy of imitation. Bert, Mary’s beau, is not only the preferred male character; he is a large part of the comedy, and the preferred method of stimulating laughter on the part of the audience seems to be a show of exaggerated immaturity and cowardice. Don’t worry, though. Mary’s got everything under [her] control—including Bert. The only statements she ever makes about his personality are criticisms of his “utter nonsense” and “disgraceful[ness]” or praises for his “forbearance” and “sweet gentility”. His nonsense is real but endearing to her, and his gentility, though laudable in theory, is entirely passive, rather than active. Does she want him to quit himself like a man? I don’t think so. If he did, she might have to start behaving properly, too.

Just her profession is enough to raise some questions, given the amount of attention paid to it. Of course, she’s a nanny, which means, in this case at least, that she is honored with all the duties and affections that ordinarily belong to the children’s parents. It is true that this is more or less resolved at the end of the film, but Mary’s departure is hardly what you
’d call a memorable scene. At the end of the movie, young viewers are going to forget Jane and Michael’s happiness at being with their parents at the end, and are going to remember the happiness, and the novelty, of being the sole object of their nanny’s interest.

Now, as to Mary’s character: The fact is, she hasn’t much. Perhaps you remember the phrase, “Practically perfect in every way,” and perhaps you remember whose line it is. Neither does this “practically perfect” person shy away from shameless flattery, and beyond expecting and accepting it, she demands it, and becomes jealous when she doesn’t get it immediately. But my objection is not so much to her personality, nor to her immodest and unfeminine deportment, though they also stood out. There are three things in direct relation to her character that seem the most problematic to me.

1) The employer/employee relationship is turned on its head, putting Mary Poppins, the hireling, in the most authoritative position, while Mr. Banks must hope to live up to her expectations. This would not be such a problem here if it were not that this is an attitude you are likely to encounter if you delegate the education, discipline or care of your children to individuals outside your own family. School teachers, among other professionals, have risen so high in our estimation that we see ourselves as beholden to them, instead of, as the “employers”, remembering that the job is supposed to be done to
our satisfaction, not theirs.

2) Mary Poppins, in her role as the invincible authority-figure in the Banks household, does not stop at condescending to her employer and the naturally concerned father of the children she is discipling. She glories in refusing to answer to him or anybody. “I make it a point,” she says, “never to give references.” She turns things around even to the point, when Mr. Banks demands an explanation of her offensive conduct towards himself and his children, of saying, “I would like to make one thing quite clear—I never explain anything.” Then she turns her back on him and walks away. If this had been played as improper, or meant to reflect badly upon her character, I would not have spent so much time on it. It is, however, seen as a mark of wit and superiority, and she gets away with it.

And, more briefly, 3) Mary Poppins unashamedly denies the truth when Mr. Banks and even the children demand it of her. She gets away with this even more easily, and is meant to seem clever for it.

The number of things the children get away with is problematic, too, especially since the reaction we are supposed to have to their apology or admission of guilt is one of pity and indignation at the emotional abuse they suffered. Within the infamous “tuppence” segment, Jane and Michael refuse their father’s advice, beg for what he has already forbidden, shout disrespectfully at the old banker, physically grapple with him, and then run away while their father is calling out to them. “I don’t know what we did,” says Jane, “but it must have been something dreadful.” Cue sympathy.

Of course, there is the magic throughout, which evidently works independently of a spiritual source, and there is an entire song about luck.

And then there is the all too prevalent idea that it is perfectly normal and acceptable for a couple to have an ongoing romantic relationship without any commitment or intentionality.

And, too, the idea that it is acceptable for a servant (Mary) to tell children that their father can’t see past the end of his nose.

And, of course, the drama of the “bird woman”, which employs the fallacy of the appeal to pity. The birds’ “young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare,” which is, of course, a legitimate reason to feed the birds. The fallacy is not “The birds are hungry, so I must feed them”, but “The birds are hungry, so I must give money to the bird woman.” The question that makes the difference is, Who is benefiting by the donation? The birds? Actually, no. If the bird woman was so very concerned about the poor, helpless, starving birds, she would give them the birdseed. She does not, however. She already possesses the means to assist the birds, but waits until somebody pays her to give that assistance. Appeal to pity… and (which was overkill) to the apostles. “Though you can’t see it, you know they are smiling.” No, we don’t know, but if you set it to reverent-sounding music, and let Mary gaze heavenward as she sings it, it becomes an authority on which to base your financial decisions.

Almost lastly, there is the existential affront offered by Mr. Banks to his former employer, “When it’s all said and done, there’s no such thing as you!” This ought to confuse, not amuse, us. And, existence being among the most important possessions or attributes of a human being, an accusation that denies a person’s existence is quite the insult.

It would also seem that Mary’s mocking reference to Mr. Banks’ “straight and narrow way” could hardly stem from a respect for biblical Christianity.

I am on the last point in my list of the negative content of
Mary Poppins, and I don’t know how many people will have been able to guess what is left to object to. The attitude that remains to be addressed is pretty well summed up in the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” for which there is no definition. The praise of meaninglessness and purposelessness, not in a nihilistic but in a reckless, directionless fashion, pervades the film, from beginning to end. What good is there in any of Mary Poppins’ whimsical outings? What good is there in the use of a word like you-know-what? No good, that Mr. Banks or I can see, and yet the characters who disapprove of her methods which “have little use, fulfill no basic need” (and I might go stronger than that) are scorned, pitied, and villainized. Remember the power of music, to not merely plant but fix and normalize ideas in the mind. Phrases like “never need a reason, never need a rhyme” do influence us, whether we realize it or not, even if it is only in small ways… like making us forget how wrong they are. We all have reasons for doing everything we do. Movie makers have reasons for incorporating these themes into their movies, and generally it is because they are convinced of their validity. The contrast, as it comes across to the casual viewer is, by design, not between hedonism and Christian stewardship of our time, but between happiness and emptiness. I dislike movies that incline me to agree with the antagonist before his redemption, but I must echo the sarcastic statement of Mr. Banks, “I should like to make a slight differentiation between the word cheerful and just plain giddy irresponsibility.”

If I am strictly considering it as a piece of art,
Mary Poppins has its good points and its shortcomings, as does any movie, whether I like it or not. The dancing was very good, the music fair, the acting tolerable. I’ve heard that the animation techniques are still being extolled among movie makers. But I am not considering its art, in this review, because the story is problematic and the worldview is very poor indeed. If it had not been a musical, I should have given Mary Poppins a Not Worth Watching, but because its worldview was made so memorable and influential through the songs it features, I must suggest that Mary Poppins is worth avoiding. Two hours and nineteen minutes of passable film work is not worth weakening the foundation of your children's ethics.

* American Heritage Dictionary



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