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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The Disney Magic

When Michael Banks says to his sister, “I told you she was tricky” he was absolutely correct.  Mary Poppins is very tricky, and although a trickster or trickstar in her own right, as we will shortly see, Mary Poppins got a little help from her friends, the Disney imagineers, whose creative genius shines through brilliantly in every aspect of the movie Mary Poppins. As Maltin (1973) points out, “one of the amazing things about this film is its total stylization.  Nothing is real. Every square inch is designed and designed with a purpose in mind” (p. 230).  Mary Poppins was filmed entirely inside, on four Disney sound stages in Burbank, California, they never left the studio!  Peter Ellenshaw painted more than a hundred matte paintings for the movie.  The paintings were painted on glass, and in some of them, some of the glass was left exposed, and lit from behind, so that the lights of London would appear to come on gradually during certain scenes.  Mary Poppins was the first movie to use audioanimatronics, and the robin in the “A Spoonful of Sugar” song was the first audioanimatronic movie star, although is voice was dubbed by none other than Julie Andrews herself, who is apparently a great whistler. The talking parrot-head umbrella's voice at the end of the movie was supplied by George Tomlinson who played George Banks.

Just as Mary pulls many things out of her carpet bag, the Disney imagineers went full out, pulling from their considerable bag of tricks, “every kind of movie magic.”  In Mary Poppins, the imagineers created a world where all the magic could happen, bringing “this unreal real world to life” (Stevenson, 2004, DVD).  Some of the tricks included stop motion photography, running the film backwards, and wire works.  Celluloid sorcery was provided by filming the live actors in front of a sodium vapor process screen.  The “Jolly Holliday” sequence was the ultimate use of this technique.  All of the action was thought out ahead of time and storyboarded.  The scene was then filmed in front of the sodium vapor screen, and photographs of the live action sequence were then used by the animators as reference so that Bert did not end up smashing one of the penguins or colliding with other animated animals!  In the end, after pencil tests were approved, and the ink and paint was applied, the animation and the live action were added together to produce a “Jolly Holiday” that was seamlessly perfect.  In the “I Love to Laugh” tea party scene at Uncle Albert’s house, a mixture of motion picture illusions were used, from wires, to sodium vapor, to sets where the floor was the ceiling, and lifts to help the characters bob up and down in midair were also used.  While that scene looks like a lot of fun, it took hours of time being suspended in midair, and young Matthew Garber did not like heights, so they paid him a dime every time he had to do a take!

Mary Poppins is a special effects triumph, a tour de force of technical tricks that not only combines live action with animation, but also is the culmination of everything that Disney had learned to do to that point.  The songs are integrated with the story “in a most delightful way.” Combining live action and animation allowed the creation of scenes in reel life that were not available in real live.  Walt had been experimenting with this blending of live actors and fantasy settings since the first Alice Comedies in the 1920s where he put a little girl into an animated world.  With Mary Poppins, he perfected this technique (Stevenson, 2004, DVD).

Mary’s tricky transformational teachings likewise worked their magic on the Banks family and beyond, just as the trailer for the movie promised:

Mary Poppins’s magical and wondrous ways transform each member of the family with whom she comes to reside in such a way that their lives are never again the same, nor will yours be when you’ve been fooled by the magic of this great new motion picture. (Stevenson, 2004, DVD)

This is definitely true for me.  Mary Poppins is probably the most influential movie I ever saw, which is why my synchronous encounters with Dick Van Dyke were so utterly amazing and enlightening. 


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