Mary has a magic carpetbag—not a magic carpet, like in Aladdin, though:
MICHAEL: That's a funny sort of bag.
MICHAEL: You mean to carry carpets in?
MARY: No. Made of.
When Mary first moves into the Bank's house, she pulls all of her things out of the bag, miraculously. Most of the objects she pulls out, like a lamp, are clearly too big to have ever fit in the bag—yet, there they are.
When Michael and Jane look in the bag, it seems to be empty, though Mary keeps taking things out of it. At one point, Michael goes under the table the bag is sitting on to see if this is some kind of trick. It isn't.
But, behind this, there's a moral lesson. Mary Poppins always knows how to sneak those in:
MARY: Never judge things by their appearance...even carpetbags. I'm sure I never do.
Isn't that nice? The whole movie's like that: Mary isn't just a kindly nanny. She's also practically a wizard. Bert's not just a charming chimney sweep: he's a magical guy, a Jack of All Trades, who lends support to Mary's adventures.
The idea is—don't take the world for granted, because it can surprise you with its hidden depths.
One of the first adventures on which Mary takes the kids is inside a chalk drawing. Bert draws a bunch of different pictures on the sidewalk—one of the English countryside. They jump into it, and find themselves in a completely animated world. They sing with talking animals, save a fox from a foxhunt, and Mary winds a horse race. Also, Bert dances with a bunch of penguins who dress as waiters.
This animated sequence manages to kill a lot of time in the movie with pure entertainment—it's mostly musical, with songs like "It's a Jolly Holiday" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." It's not super-focused on story, but more on amusing the audience. (Not everything has to be strictly plotted).
But the sequence also says something about the power of the imagination. Even if you can't literally jump inside a chalk drawing, you can voyage into other worlds through the kind of art and creativity Bert used to make those drawings.
When they return to the real world—after the rain washes away the chalk drawings—Mary denies that they ever ventured inside a chalk-drawing world. Michael reminds her that she won a horse race:
MARY: A respectable person like me in a horse race? How dare you suggest such a thing.
MICHAEL: But I saw you do it!
Regardless of whether Michael really saw it—or whether it was pure fantasy—it symbolizes the same point. Imagination can take us into new worlds, be it Narnia, Middle Earth, or Mary Poppins' version of London.
Yeah, that's a pretty saccharine statement to say to anyone older than ten. But since Mary Poppins was aimed at the juice-box set, we think its pretty charming.
Back in the day, Disney movies went in for hardcore ethnic and racial humor (think about the disgustingly racist crows in Dumbo). We already discussed Admiral Boom's racial attack on African natives in the Admiral Boom character section—which brings us to the Irish fox.
This sequence isn't really "racist," but it's oddly adult political humor inserted into a children's movie. Most people would probably miss it, it goes by so quick.
At any rate, a group of English hunters are pursuing a fox, who speaks with an Irish accent:
FOX: Faith and begorra! 'Tis them redcoats again! …Saints preserve us! Yikes!
Fortunately, Bert saves the fox, so it doesn't get killed.
This refers to the conflict between the British and the Irish over many centuries—from Oliver Cromwell's genocidal campaign against the Irish, to the later revolutionary struggle against British rule. In Mary Poppins, the talking cartoon fox is talking about that, since "redcoats" are British soldiers (the fox hunters are also wearing redcoats).
It's a heavy reference for a kid's movie, that's for sure.
Laughter feels good. (And it should feel good—unless you're laughing at someone getting thrown off a cliff or run over with a lawn mower.)
It makes Uncle Albert feel good, at any rate:
ALBERT: I can't help it. You can see that. I just like laughing, that's all.
The fact that Albert floats symbolizes the way laughter makes you feel: light and easygoing. If laughter made Albert heavier, until he sank into the earth, it wouldn't quite feel right—it would be bizarrely off-kilter.
Yeah, it's a pretty obvious symbol, but—hey, someone had to step up and point it out.
We covered the pigeon lady in the character section, but she's really more of a symbol than a character. So we're going to rewind: what's this lady's deal again?
Well, she exists as a character in a song Mary sings—and then she exists in real life. She sits outside St. Paul's Cathedral, feeding pigeons, and sells little bags of birdseed so that other people can feed the pigeons too.
Mary describes her in song:
MARY: Feed the birds, that's what she cries, while overhead her birds fill the skies. All around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares. Although you can't see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares. Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen, she's calling to you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag. Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen she's calling to you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.
All you need is tuppence—that's just two pennies. Michael has tuppence in pocket, which he wants to use to feed the birds after he sees that the bird lady really exists. When Dawes Sr. tries to make him put that money in a savings account, Michael rightly resists, though it ends up getting his dad fired.
As one of the songwriters of "Feed the Birds," Richard Sherman put it, "The song "Feed the Birds" has nothing to do with ornithology: it's about how it doesn't take much to give love." (Source)
All you need is tuppence, and you can make a bunch of birds—not to mention a certain bird-lady—way happier. It's a lesson that George Banks needs to learn, and which his kids and Mary Poppins can teach him.
We just have one little qualm about this situation: pigeons? Really: pigeons? The rats of the skies? Couldn't the brains behind Mary Poppins have come up with a nicer bird to feed? You know those pigeons are already getting fat off of old French fries.
The movie begins with Jane and Michael getting lost after chasing a kite away (which happens off screen), and ends with the whole Banks' Family, flying a kite together.
In other words, the movie begins with chaos and disorder, and ends with control and family happiness. That's what kite flying symbolizes: it's a fun and simple thing a family can do together. It doesn't require anything fancy or a lot of money, but it's still cool. As George sings in the song, "Let's Go Fly a Kite":
GEORGE: With tuppence for paper and strings
You can have your own set of wings
With your feet on the ground
You're a bird in flight
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite
(There's the tuppence again—happiness with simplicity, just a little money required).
Also, in order to make the tail for the kite, Mrs. Banks uses her "Votes for Women" sash. This seems to be implying that she should lay off the activism and spend more time with her kids—which is sort of disputable, given how important gaining the right to vote was for women.
Hopefully the next family outing is to a suffragette rally…
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Weirdly, Mr. Banks goes through the hero's journey—even though we would think of Mary Poppins and the kids as the main characters. But they don't really go through an inner crisis the way Mr. Banks does. This guy's headed for a workaholic breakdown, which could end with him running naked through a city fountain. Fortunately, Mary P. shows him the light…
At the beginning, George Banks seems to be content with his life. He's a successful bank manager, and he crows over the fact that it is "the age of men!" He seems to be loving life in the year 1910.
But, actually, we see that there's a lot missing in his world. Even though he loves his kids, he's detached from them, and he seems to be living in a separate world from his wife, who's involved in the struggle to win women the right to vote. He believes in discipline and order, but he won't let his natural fun-loving side show through. Society's repressed it.
Mr. Banks gets jolted out of his lame state of stasis when the children's nanny quits. Mrs. Banks hasn't been very successful and finding a permanent nanny, so Mr. Banks decides to take control: he's going to find the sort of strict, militaristic nanny he thinks will mold Michael and Jane into future bank managers.
But Michael and Jane have an alternative: they want a sweet, kindly nanny, who will play games with them. They even write an advertisement for this nanny, which they want their dad to put in the paper. Will Banks accept their offer?
Banks thinks Michael and Jane are hitting the cough syrup too hard. He tears up their ad and throws it into the fireplace. He refuses their call to action: they give him a chance to mix a "spoonful of sugar" in with the medicine of life, but he trashes the idea, and spits (metaphorically) right in the sugar.
The ad's fragments blow up the chimney, though, and somehow Mary Poppins gets a hold of it and restores it to its non-torn-up state. She soon arrives via flying umbrella, as the wind literally blows away all the boring, crabby-looking nannies Banks wanted to hire.
Mary P. enters the Banks house and astonishes George by presenting the ad he'd just torn up. He's too tongue-tied to hire her, so she hires herself.
Mary ends up becoming a kind of role model for Banks, even though he's not willing to accept this at first. She's going to be the kind of adult that Banks should be—someone who does add a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
By making Banks jealous of her, she forces him to recognize his own inner Mary Poppins. He needs to imitate Mary—and when he can do that, Mary won't be necessary anymore. She'll just fly off on her umbrella.
So, Banks allows Mary to work her magic on his household. He's letting it happen. Everyone seems cheerful. Mary takes the kids on one magical adventure after another, and even the maids perk up. Bert's around, doing his cockney thing. Things should be looking up, right?
Mr. Banks doesn't know what to make of Mary. Is she an ally, an enemy, or what? Turns out the people he thinks are his allies (his co-workers at the bank) are actually his enemies, and the people he thinks are undermining him (Mary and Bert) are really on his side.
At one point, Banks gets fed up with Mary's popularity and decides to take steps to fire her—but Mary beats him to the punch, by suggesting that Jane and Michael visit the bank and learn about its values. Banks thinks he's going to be able to get the children to embrace thrift and discipline.
But Banks didn't count on the fact that the bank is a boring place.
The kids get there, and are subjected to a song by the other bank managers and the guys who run the bank—Dawes Sr. and Dawes Jr. George Banks thought the kids were going to be hyped by all this financial savings stuff, but Michael just wants to use his tuppence to buy seeds to feed the birds with.
When Dawes tries to take the tuppence from Michael to forcibly invest it in the bank, Michael rebels and demands his tuppence back. The people in the bank get confused, and think that there's a "run" on the bank—they all start demanding to withdraw all their money from their accounts, causing a panic.
In the eyes of his employers, this reflects badly on George.
George expects to get fired—and does. After he trudges over to the bank at night, Dawes Jr. and Dawes Sr. blame him for Michael's actions and the ensuing panic, and George accepts full responsibility. He's out.
Everything he was talking about at the beginning of the movie—his disciplined and supposedly content life as a bank manager—is over.
But, surprisingly, George realizes he feels pretty good. Actually, he feels "Supercalifragilistcexpialidocious!" Then, he remembers a dumb joke Jane and Michael learned from Mary Poppins' Uncle Albert. He laughs, and tells it to the bank managers, who don't get it (at first).
He leaves the bank in a great mood, still feeling "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" George is either having a nervous breakdown or finally loosening up the way Mary Poppins wanted him too—or maybe he's doing both?
The happy, hyper George who arrives home weirds everyone out. They all were worried he would jump into a river in despair or something.
But nope. He's discovered that he's actually freer now, and that the bank was a really a cage penning him in and preventing the real George from breaking out.
Now, he's back with his family and ready to start taking his dad game to the next level.
Instead of trying to force his small children to learn about investing their money, George gets a brighter idea: he decides to take them to fly a kite. They sing the song "Let's Go Fly a Kite" as they head down to the park. Mrs. Banks joins them and uses her "Votes for Women" sash as the tail of the kite.
George has finally learned to embrace the role Mary Poppins once played—and, consequently, Mary has to leave. (Or, technically, she has to leave because the wind changed, but whatever. This is the real reason). The kids say their tearful goodbyes—but they've got their father back, so it's a decent trade. Looks like they're a real family again!
As an added bonus, they see Dawes Jr. at the park, who tells them that Dawes Sr. finally got Banks' joke and died laughing. But, no harm, no foul: Dawes' dying wish was to re-hire George as a partner in the bank. George accepts the new job.
Now that Mr. Banks is a first rate dad again, he's ready to spread the same sort of joy that Mary Poppins is capable of spreading. He's going to have fun with his kids, and add "a spoonful of sugar" to all of their lives. That's the elixir—his newfound ability to express fatherly love and unite his family with kindness. If he ever gets a "World's Best Dad" coffee mug, he'll have earned it.
Cheerio! Spit-spot! Mary Poppins is set in London, England—capital of the British Empire and home to any number of cockney street sweepers and magical nannies.
But Poppins isn't set in then-modern day London (in the swingin' 1960s). It's set in the Edwardian Era, specifically in 1910, back when King Edward VII was doing his thing.
George spells out exactly what time it is, and how it feels to be a man in the era:
GEORGE: It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men! I'm the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege!
George is acting like it's a man's world and he's ruling the roost—but, in reality, he's not incredibly happy as a junior member of the bank, and his world is changing around him. For one thing, his wife's become an ardent suffragette:
WINIFRED: We're clearly soldiers in petticoats, and dauntless crusaders for women's a-votes! Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they're rather stupid.
The campaign for gaining women the right to vote was huge at the time. Winifred mentions one of the other suffragettes chaining herself to the Prime Minister's carriage—things got intense. Eventually, in 1918, women finally would gain the right to vote in England—towards the end of World War I.
So, despite George's claim that he's the ruler of his household, he's actually an uncertain man in an uncertain world.
We also see different London locations in the movie. The pigeon lady feeds birds outside St. Paul's Cathedral—a classic London landmark—and we get aerial views of the city, including the Parliament Building and Big Ben. Plus, when Mary, Bert, and the kids leap into the chalk drawing, they enter a cartoon world based on the English countryside, except with talking farm animals and penguins who act as waiters. They do classically English things there, like participate in a foxhunt (while saving the fox) and racing horses.
Also, the London setting shapes the characters: Bert speaks with a cockney accent and George is an uptight gentleman who loves tradition and discipline while approving of foxhunts—a spot-on stereotype of an upper-middle-class conservative British guy.
Yeah. The only thing that would make this American-made movie more British is if Jane's middle name was "Shakespeare" and Michael wanted to grow up and become a beef-eater.
Mary Poppins doesn't stay confined to the viewpoint of one character. At the beginning, we see Bert and he speaks directly to us, telling us a little bit about the Banks Family and leading us to their house. But if you thought Bert would remain as the narrator for the rest of the movie, popping in from time to time to say stuff to us, you were wrong.
The movie features scenes containing only Mrs. Banks and the maids, only Mary and Bert, only the children and Mr. Banks, and Mr. Banks facing down the bank partners on his own. It doesn't remain squarely focused on one character, but gives us a picture of how the story weaves its way through different lives.
But, the story doesn't make any crazy shifts in time and place—it doesn't suddenly shift to 500 B.C. Finland, or show us what Mary was like as a girl. It keeps itself confined to the present in 1910 London (aside from the trip inside the chalk drawing—though that drawing is itself located in London).
But the movie's structure is beholden to Mary P. She's the one who instigates the story, and sets adventures rolling. The structure of the movie is basically:
That's not a convoluted narrative. It keeps things simple yet elegant, without too many (or any) subplots.
First off, this is a family movie. Why? Because no one uses four-letter words, sets anyone else on fire, or creates terrifying and lethal booby traps.
Oh, oops. We just described another family movie—albeit one about an abandoned budding sociopath—Home Alone.
But Mary Poppins doesn't go as dark (or as Christmas-y) as Home Alone does. This movie's all about whimsy, joy, and a message that empowers kids and cheers people up—unless you're Bambi's Mom or Mufasa in The Lion King...in those cases, it's funeral time. Fortunately, Mr. Banks winds up flying a kite instead of rotting in a coffin. Good job, Banksy!
The animated sequences and adventures with floating uncles and flying nannies make Mary Poppins a perfect family movie, rated G and suitable for all ages. But they also make it a fantasy. Alas, we can't enter into chalk drawings or laugh ourselves into floating or clean up rooms through magic. And nannies can't actually fly. We know: shocking.
This puts Mary P. in fantasy territory—though not the kind of fantasy with elves and orcs.
Finally, it's a musical. Not too hard to figure out why—check out all those musical numbers where the characters start spontaneously singing. That's also, sadly, not the kind of thing that actually happens in everyday life…unless you have this misfortune to be surrounded by a flash mob.
The title is just Mary's name: Mary Poppins. It's not too hard to figure that one out. The story is focused on solving the Banks Family's dilemma, and Mary is the person to make this happen. She's the puppet-master, the magician pulling all the strings, leading the kids on adventures and guiding Mr. Banks back to happiness and kindly fatherhood.
Without Mary, there's no movie. It's as simple as that.
By movie's end, Mr. Banks has lost his job and come away a better man.
Fortunately, he feels great—and not at all like jumping into a river (which is what the maid, Ellen, thinks he's done). He's ready to get that "spoonful of sugar" and mix it into his family's life. He gets the kids to go fly a kite with him, while Mrs. Banks comes along too—using her "Votes for Women" sash to make the kite's tail (see our symbol section for more on this).
They head down to the park, all singing the tune, "Let's Go Fly a Kite":
Let's go fly a kite
Up to the highest height
Let's go fly a kite and send it soaring
Up through the atmosphere
Up where the air is clear
Oh, let's go fly a kite
Everyone has a great time, and Dawes Jr. arrives at the park to tell George that his father's dying wish was to re-hire Banks as a partner in the bank. George gratefully accepts—now, he'll probably be able to handle it without getting all discipline-obsessed again.
Meanwhile, the wind has changed and Mary Poppins needs to leave. Plus, it's emotionally the right time—the Banks parents are connecting with their kids, meaning that Mary has accomplished her mission.
Mary says she's not upset to be leaving, because:
MARY: Perfectly practical people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.
To which the talking parrot-head-shaped handle of her umbrella says:
UMBRELLA: Well, I'll tell you one thing Mary Poppins, you don't fool me a bit.
Of course, Mary loves the kids. But she doesn't need to act as a substitute parent for them because the Banks kids now have two perfectly good parents. She's able to launch off on her umbrella and go back to…wherever she came from.
Mary Poppins is a pure G-rated experience. No one's getting murdered. No criminals get cut down in a hail of bullets. And there's no "adult" content—beyond visiting a bank.
Everything is fun, light-hearted and whimsical. The world of Mary P. is for kids.
The only really objectionable thing in the movie is Admiral Boom's unpleasant racism—firing his cannon on chimney sweeps because he thinks they're African natives. It's a totally offensive and badly dated moment.