Mary Poppins Syndrome (Part I)

I’ve talked this thought through with a few friends probably a dozen times, but this is the place where it all congeals, so here is a (hopefully) brief overview of a psycho-cultural phenomenon that I have not-so-lovingly dubbed the Mary Poppins Syndrome. The Mary Poppins Syndrome is probably one of the most ubiquitous psychoses in history, and is certainly the predominant insanities in the west. To understand just what goes on in the mind of a victim of MPS, it will help to understand its name.

In 1964, Warner Brothers dished out the film, which was initially a total flop, but eventually gained massive popularity with young crowds because of its fantastic and congenial tone. Under a literary analysis, the movie, to me, turns out to be pretty unique. One uniqueness is that, unlike most movies (even most children’s movies), as far as I remember, the children face no real conflict, save for the excessive frugality and emotional unavailability of their father, there is no interesting tragedy or antagony going on in the film. The children are, at worst, bored and feeling a little distanced from their father, and certainly a bit confused by their asymmetrical family unit (though it’s not all that asymmetrical since Mary functions as a mother figure). Either way, the plight of the protagonists is certainly not the element of the film that grips the viewer. What endears the viewer to the story seems to be the totally unexplained, vertigo-inducing surrealism of the film that pops up when Mary, using whatever mysterious, reality-warping powers she has, pulls off the incredible, or transports the characters to a (to me, hellish) world of cartoonery where the characters react with euphoric delight instead of the mind-fracturing horror that any normal person would react to.

Needless to say, I don’t at all find the film endearing, or interesting as anything other than an instance of egregous art, and a paradigm for understanding the effect modern film has on us. It’s this second point that is important to me so, before I spell out just what I think is going on with MPS, I will foreshadow it with a simple consideration: following the release of the film, there was a significant increace in hospital visits involving children attempting to fly off their rooftops using umbrellas, a’ la Mary Poppins.

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  1. #1 by Joshy Bugaboo on 6.22.07 - 4.34 am

    Interesting. You also might want to call this the “Cat In the Hat Syndrome” since the Dr. Suess story follows the same line as Mary Poppins only without any parental figures (outside of the first and last pages) and even less plot and arguably crazier, less-rational events.

    As far as lack of conflict, I would sa the first part of MP’s conflict is being able to find a good nanny. The rest, which I find you’ve undermined, is the childrens’ abilities to cope with the new nanny and her strange yet magical ways. The kids are often perplexed by her powers. Because of this, there are times where they fear her submissively as a child might do to an (apparently) omniscient parent, like the wise parent who constantly must outwit their child for their obedience. There are good lessons for parents if you look at MP as a nanny. She is far from being a doting nanny and never stoops to “talking down” to the children. There is mutual respect not often found in the majority of subsequent children’s literature. Also, there isn’t so much one conflict as there are a series of conflicts (I’ll talk about this episodal nature later).

    Your mention of “any normal person reacting” causes me to believe there is an element of reality missing for you on your lack of ability to enjoy the movie. It certainly does lack a great amount of reality. But the movie takes you *from* boring reality *to* a fanciful world of make-believe. Bringing the everyday-reality to the limitless-imagination-world would not allow one to experience the most flightiest of fantasies, much MP certainly does.

    My most trivial question is where did you get your statistic on MP being a flop? According to my knowledge/research, I seem to recall it being phenomenally popular. Maybe even moreso then than now, and not just by children. It certainly was remembered critically in its time by the adults. It (and “The Sound of Music”) solidified Julie Andrews in the movies, ushering her into a household name. Walt Disney himself considered MP to be one of his greatest achievements. The film also was nominted for 13 Academy Awards (the most for any musical) and winning 5. It grossed $100M domestically, only costing $6M to make. That’s all not to mention a heavy promotional campaign behind it all. “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Citizen Kane” are both renowned as the flops that became hits. I don’t believe “Mary Poppins” is among them.

    Personally speaking, I find “Mary Poppins” to be an astounding and fantastical movie. I say it works because there is plenty of mystery behind every corner when Mary Poppins is around, and that makes things exciting. Most of the characters are easy to love and memorable. The songs are enchanting and some of Disney’s best. The major downside is its tireless length. It could probably lose an hour. However, if it feels like there are many mini-stories, it’s only because the original work is a children’s series of books. The movie is suited to go from one adventure to the next. There are true moments of sadness (“Feed the Birds”), exhilaration (the roof dancing sequence), and jolly good fun (the sidewalk painting).

    As far as your umbrellas and children flying statistic, I certainly hope you mention the even more popular trend of injured children and capes (a la Superman).

    One final comment: The word is “increase,” not “increace.”

    [I apologize for the length but you’re finally talking about something I can talk at enormous lengths about. I look forward to Part II.]

  2. #2 by MichaelGlawson on 6.22.07 - 5.00 am

    My analysis is intended to be psychological, not literary, so most of your comment misses the point. I am aware that there are various struggles in the movie (such as the children struggling to cope with their witch-nanny), but my reading of the movie, doesn’t see those as genuine conflicts. If there were to count at those, then the movie would suffer from hopeless circularity since most of her withcery is done to ameliorate the other conflicts in the movie, which seem to be the children’s general sense of boredom and unease, which is an uninteresting conflict.

    As far as it being a flop, I may have it confused with The Wizard of Oz. I will check and edit accordingly. Thanks for your spell-checking.

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