Cinema: Have Umbrella, Will Travel

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Mary Poppins. It is jolly old London, 1910, and one proper English family is all adither over the servant problem. Having put a whole series of nannies to rout, the two Banks youngsters compose a want ad listing desirable qualifications: cheery disposition, rosy cheeks, plays games. Father tears it up and writes an advertisement of his own that draws a queue of cross, solemn applicants. Before you can say Walt Disney, they are whisked away from the doorstep by a high wind, and over the rooftop sails Mary Poppins, dangling from her open umbrella. "I'm sure the children will find my games extremely diverting," she announces blithely.

They will, indeed. For Julie Andrews, bypassed by Hollywood for My Fair Lady, proves in this musical fantasy that she is a girl to conjure with. As the redoubtable Mary Poppins, who declares herself "practically perfect in every way," Julie slides up banisters, arranges all sorts of tidy miracles, and even whisks her charges off to one of Disney's cloyingly clever never lands where the cartoon fauna come swiftly to heel. Although she pokes her pretty fingers into a world of sticky sweetness, she almost invariably pulls out a plum. All speeches and cream, with a voice like polished crystal, she seems the very image of a prim young governess who might spend her free Tuesdays skittering off to Oz.

To make a good show better, Disney employs all the vast magicmaking machinery at his command. The sets are luxuriant, the songs lilting, the scenario witty but impeccably sentimental, and the supporting cast only a pinfeather short of perfection. Protean Dick Van Dyke is uneasy with his accent but nonetheless nimble as Bert, the cockney chimney sweep, whether hoofing it with a quartet of penguins or leading the sooty male chorus in a raffish rooftop ballet. Ed Wynn, as the risible Uncle Albert, floats upward every time he laughs, and soon has everyone aloft for the movie's most engaging scene, a high high tea. Though overlong and sometimes over-cute, Mary Poppins is the drollest Disney film in decades, a feat of prestidigitation with many more lifts than lapses.