As Bert (Dick Van Dyke) performs his one man band in a London park, singing rhymes for the onlookers, he notices the east wind is blowing and pauses reflectively that it may be bringing something of significance with it. And he's not wrong, as the children of the Banks family are about to find out, although first they must return home as their nanny (Elsa Lanchester) is at the end of her tether. She is sick and tired of Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) wandering off without her while she gets the blame for their behaviour, so is handing in her notice. Whoever can they find to look after them now?
If you don't know that by now, then somehow you must have avoided this ubiquitous fantasy musical, which made Julie Andrews a star around the world in the title role. Much has been written about how she really should have been starring in her stage role of Eliza Doolittle in the movie of My Fair Lady, and how her Oscar for this was given to her as compensation, but that is to do down Mary Poppins too harshly, as she was "practically perfect" in a film which beats that other musical hands down for entertainment value. There are those who are fans of the original P.L. Travers novels who see this as a disappointment, and Travers herself was determined to meddle with the production to have it done right in her eyes, but Disney knew what they were doing.
So Travers should have trusted the fellows at the House of Mouse - she was even reluctant for the film to feature the Sherman brothers' near-immortal songs. Fortunately, although Disney allowed her to put her oar in, they did not give her final cut and an enduring cinematic entertainment was born. Revisionists saw Mary Poppins as the last truly popular gasp of a conservative society toeing a line in the sand, and even those who were happy with the changes from the books might have balked at the way mother Winifred (Glynis Johns) was depicted as being an errant parent through her suffragette interests, but the theme that children need correct and loving guidance from their parents was not one which many would complain about.
Therefore Mary Poppins (she is always referred to by her full name by the other characters, except in song) is a surrogate mother for Jane and Michael, while Bert becomes their stand-in father. Their actual father (David Tomlinson) is a stuffy banker who wishes to make his offspring measure up to the harsh and staid realities of life, despite their ages, and as a result is distant to the point of rejection, merely existing in their lives to punish them whenever he feels the need to put his foot down. But he is not humiliated into becoming a reformed character as might have happened in other family films, as it is kindness which prompts him to alter his outlook on life. Meanwhile mother cottons on to the fact that she should balance her social conscience with seeing that her children are well catered for - there's very little political about it all really.
Mention of Bert has to mean mention of Dick Van Dyke's accent, a horribly mangled version of Cockney that he fully admitted was a major weakness in the film. And yet, from this distance you cannot imagine it without him and his strangulated vocal mishaps, as otherwise he plays the character with such charm and good humour that he is as much a part of the experience as Andrews herself. The film is arranged like a chocolate box, with each sequence adorned with a catchy song, some hectic (such as the unforgettable "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"), some reflective ("Stay Awake") but not one misstep amongst them. Throw in animation, as when Mary, Bert and the kids enter a chalk drawing to dance with penguin waiters and race in the Derby on merry-go-round horses, and dance numbers, like the chimney sweeps' impossibly energetic perfomances, and the variety of effervescence on show is what kept a long film from feeling like it. It's a pleasure to watch, pure and simple.