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Mary Poppins – Still Great for Kids

September 28, 2009

Recently I sat down to watch Mary Poppins with my daughter. She had really enjoyed The Sound of Music (aka the greatest musical ever made) and I thought I would subject her to some more of Julie Andrews’ singing, this time augmented with some Disney magic. I was struck while we watched the film–Disney’s live-action fare has changed dramatically since its heyday in the 60’s. I stand by Mary Poppins as a movie, but it’s hardly the scientifically-maximized-for-kids entertainment compared to most stuff available now.

I’ll start with why it doesn’t measure up to today’s kid movies:

1. Length. The movie is just under 2 and a half hours, which, as anyone with a child under 5 knows, is waaaaay too long to sit still.

2. Pacing. There are some great, fanciful, exciting parts of the movie. Unfortunately for a child, they’re broken up by plot. While I am not complaining about plot (I’ll talk about liking it below), it’s pretty easy for a toddler to get bored during these sections.

3. Dick van Dyke’s accent. It’s terrible. Doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s just comically bad.

But what makes it superior to whatever Nickelodeon/Disney Channel-promoted flick out now?

1. The songs. These songs, unlike those in most kids’ shows (Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba! excepted) are timeless. Chim-chim-chiree and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious got me and my 18-month-old daughter singing along and having fun. They aren’t dumbed down or overproduced. They’re stone-cold classics.

2. The sense of whimsy and fantasy. The magic that happens is never explained or even really questioned. Not to say that a lack of skepticism is positive, but, as with JJ Abram’s mystery box, a lack of explanation can make some things more interesting and more exciting. We don’t know how much of this movie actually happens to the Banks children, if they really go into that chalk painting or dance on clouds of smoke above rooftops, and it isn’t important. Neither is HOW it happened. The world is magical for the children in the movie and should be for the viewers as well.

3. The story’s sense of realism. This might sound completely opposed to the previous point, but hear me out. There are very real issues in the story: the children are out of control, their parents are hardly involved in their lives, and their dad is a workaholic. There are no magic revelations in the movie, everyone goes through experiences that change them as people (or children, as the case may be) and they end up better people and a better family. There is real crisis, too, with the run on the bank, George Banks’ firing and subsequent not returning home (initially). The crises develop each member of the family in ways that are implied throughout the film rather than stated, bringing the movie to a satisfactory (okay, and whimsical) end.

So, sure. This movie will not completely occupy your children for its entire run time like the perfect electronic babysitter.* But, viewed as a family, it’ll give you great joy (the songs! I had to find my soundtrack record after we watched this), a chance to discuss things with older children, and even an opportunity to teach the younger ones (“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find that fun and *snap* it’s a game!”). Plus, Julie Andrews’ voice is perfect.

*Your best bet for viewing is to watch the first half before naptime and then put them down immediately after the “Stay Awake” lullabye. The second half can be viewed later in the day. Both halves have an extended song and dance number and kids can be brought up to speed quickly.

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