Senior HTF Member
- Feb 24, 1999
Studio:Disney Year:1964 RunTime:139 minutes Aspect Ratio:16x9 encoded 1.66:1 Audio:5.1 DD English Enhanced Home Theater Mix, 2.0 DD English Enhanced Home Theater Mix, 2.0 DD English Theatrical "Stereo" Mix, 5.1 DD French & Spanish Subtitles:English, SpanishSpecialFeatures:2-disc special edition with Feature Commentary (with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Bill Sherman, Karen Dotrice ("Jane") and more), Pop-up Facts, Song-Selection, Deleted Song, Magical Reunion (Bill Sherman, Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews), "The Cat That Looked at a King" Short, Musical Journey with Bill Sherman, Making-of featurette, Scene "Deconstruction", World-premiere historic footage, Theatrical Trailers (!!!), Make-up test, Image galleries, and more... ReleaseDate:December 14, 2004
In addition to being such a marvelous film, and this DVD (overall) being such a terriffic presentation, the special-feature content on this disc is phenomenal. Those of you who already own Mary Poppins (regardless of what format) will want to upgrade for the special feature content alone. I want to send out a special thank-you to Disney to all of those who worked on this DVD project, restored the picture, and researched and prepared the wealth of bonus features contained on this 2-disc SE. Efforts like this reward the collector and casual consumer alike, and honor the rich heratige of this film and all the artists who worked on it forty years ago. I look forward to seeing more Disney classics beautifully restored and presented with the outstanding value of bonus material as you've provided on this set.
Mary Poppins is one of Walt Disney's crowning jewels. The film is almost without fault. From the dreamy, impressionistic matte-painted scenery to the technical beauty of the special effects to the whimsical trimming surrounding its serious heart-felt themes, the film is executed with excellence. It's perfectly cast: Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), Dick Van Dyke (Bert), David Tomlinson (father), Glynis Johns (mother) and the children all exemplify their characters to quintessential perfection. The film is edited with craft; direction, filming, special effects, scenery, and writing all coalesce wonderfully, and the original-music written for the film by the Bill and Richard Sherman is not only charming and beautiful on its own, but each musical number exactly suits the character and scene for which it is set and integrates into the film beautifully. Rarely do all such facets of film-artistry come together in so melodious a fashion. Mary Poppins is one of the all-time family classic films, and I hope that it continues to leave its indelible affect on future generations as it did me when I first saw it as a young child.
Mary Poppins blends together a harmonious chorus of fantasy, magic, imagination, and real-world themes in a way that entertains with unpretentious joy while sharing a message about the value of family love. Young children can enjoy Mary Poppins as an imaginative world that effortlessly transports them away. Older children and adults can appreciate the way this modern-day fairy tale (what it is, in my opinion) weaves into that world a very touching story about a broken family made whole. The Banks family is introduced to us with a father and mother who are distracted with their own lives and unable to reach out to their children until a series of events, brought about in part by this mystical nanny Mary Poppins, opens their eyes to the importance and priority of connecting with their children in a genuine experience of love. This focus is strongest on the transformation of Mr. Banks (played impeccably by David Tomlinson) who is presented to us at the beginnig of the film singing a ballad filled with his own pride and sense of self-accomplishment. As experiences wear on, his world is challenged, and when finally stripped of all the trappings that for so long have defined for him the measure of his success and self-worth, he becomes able to see his family for the gift that they really are and, for perhaps the first time, reaches out to his wife and children with a love that flows freely from the heart. I know for me personally (and I'm sure for many of you), the closing scene of this film (the kite scene) never fails to elicit some tears.
Earnest Rister III shares his own comments of this marvelous film:
On the old soundtrack CD for Mary Poppins that was released in the late 80's, composers Richard M and Robert B. Sherman spoke about "Feed the Birds" and related a powerful anecdote, which I will excerpt for you here:
RICHARD M. SHERMAN: ...[T]uppence signifies little. Hardly anything. And feeding the birds meant giving to the people that need. And in this particular case it was the Banks’ children - they needed their father and mother’s attention, their love. They didn’t just have to be provided for, they had to be loved, and paid attention to.
ROBERT B. SHERMAN: Well, Walt loved this sentiment and he felt it so deeply. And Fridays, after work, he’d usually invite us into his office, and we’d sit around --
RICHARD: -- we’d talk about things that were going on at the studio --
ROBERT: -- y’know, worldy matters. Then he’d look over to Dick...and he’d say...”Play it.”
RICHARD: Yeah - and I knew what he wanted. And...sometimes he wouldn’t even say anything. He’d just look out of the window and get a little misty-eyed, and we’d - uh - play it - and it was just wonderful because sometimes - uh - he could say so much just by a look or by a silence, and - uh - we knew -- what he was saying. After Walt passed away, there were many a Friday afternoon that’d I’d go over to his office while the office was still his in there -- and play it for him.”
Mary Poppins says much about Walt Disney as both an artist and as a man. The most intelligent critique ever made about Mary Poppins was written by Leonard Maltin in his book The Disney Films. Disney's Mary Poppins, he wrote, was the ultimate Disney film because it seems to sum up Disney's entire body of work. This is exactly right, both in terms of technical craft, and in terms of personal thematics. Walt marshalled every tool, every trick, every technique at his disposal to make the film, but he also spoke from his heart, and watching the film today, one can check off the many achievements of Disney as an entertainer, and as an artist, as they are all here.
Poignant story that mixes sadness and darkness with cheer and hope? Check. Use of music to relate the theme and advance the plot? Check. Combination live-action and animation? Check. Ground-breaking visual effects? Check. Sequences with absolutely no dialogue, using only visual effects, animation, and music? Check. Stern fathers humanized by the forces of fantasy? Check. Disneyland-style audio-animatronics? Check. You want a 60's-era robot bird? Check.
If someone were to ask me to pick one film to represent the filmmaker that was Walt Disney, that film would unquestionably be Mary Poppins.
Looking at Disney's filmography, if you were living in the early 60's, then you probably wouldn't have been able to see Poppins coming. What's not commonly known among general audiences is that after WWII effectively killed the 1st Golden Age of Animation at Disney, Walt himself began spending less and less time on the films that bore his name, and more and more time on diversifying the Disney brand, first with live action films, then with television and the Disneyland theme park. With each passing year the spectrum of Disney entertainment grew, and the film department was left more and more to their own devices. 1959 had been a particularly cruel year to Walt Disney, as three personal films all failed at the box office (Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain, and Sleeping Beauty). By the early 60's, it took special projects or special circumstances or special problems for Walt to get personally involved in tackling a film, as his attention was divided among so many entities. The Sword in the Stone, in particular, was a film Walt had very little input on, and if I may suggest a criticism, it showed.
Mary Poppins, though, was special. The Disney Brothers had both tried for several years to persuade P. L. Travers to allow them to make a movie based on her books, and the wary author had always turned them down. She finally relented, and Walt took a personal interest in guiding this film to the screen. For the first time in many years, Walt Disney personally oversaw an entire film project from inception to completion, using the same detail and rigor he had brought to his film classics of the 30's and early 40's.
In fact, because there is so much glass work and model work and stop motion and hand drawn animation in the film, Mary Poppins plays like one of Walt's great animated features. The film is not a work of realism -- like Walt's animated classics, the film has a look of whimsical naturalism, even impressionism. My favorite moment of the film is the long, lonely walk made by David Tomlinson from his home on Cherry Tree Lane to the Bank which has employed him for several years. The entire walk is nothing but impressionistic matte paintings - with no attempt to ape reality. Instead, the glass shots are evocative and stylized, just like an animated film. While not the same techniques used in animation, the fundamental creative ideas here are the same as they would be had Poppins been hand drawn and inked.
Poppins, in a way, was "live-action animation". The film even begins with the classic cartoon gag from Dumbo with a character seated on a cloud, while his or her belongings begin to sink through the cloud to the world below.
For this reason, I've often chafed at criticisms from those who carp on certain aspects of the film for not being utterly faithful to reality -- especially Dick Van Dyke's accent. Dick Van Dyke gives one of the most joyful, warm, and exuberant performances I've ever seen in a film. His accent doesn't need to be flawless, it only needs to be as suggestive as the stylized glass mattes, as borderline cartoonish as his take on his other role in the film, the elder Mr. Dawes. Complaining about Van Dyke's accent in Mary Poppins is like complaining that the Lion is walking on two legs in The Wizard of Oz.
I could go on for pages, but there is one area of Mary Poppins I would like to take this opportunity to highlight because it is never mentioned, and that is the film's brilliant screenplay by Bill walsh and Don DaGradi. The film is full of terrific throwaway lines of comic dialogue -- from the batty Mrs. Banks who has learned her husband has not committed suicide ("Oh, George! You didn't jump in the river! How sensible of you!"), to the frustrated Mr. Banks delivering non-sensical advice to his wife ("Winnifred, never confuse efficiency with a liver complaint."), to the servants who have a gift for creative insults ("...that face of hers...would stop a coal barge.") to the dry Ms. Poppins herself, as she is nagged by Jane and Michael about their adventure in the chalk drawings ("Now, not another word or I shall have to summon the policeman.") People comment often and frequently about the music and performances and visual effects in Mary Poppins. Its time the film's marvelous Oscar-nominated screenplay received its due.
Poppins was Walt Disney's last great movie. He made other good movies before his death, some of them very good, but two years after the release of the film, Walt had passed. I return you to the anecdote I began with, of the Sherman Bros. playing "Feed the Birds" for him in his office, and Walt misting up every time he heard the song.
Poppins is a film of technical wizardry and great music, great acting, terrific writing and brilliant choreography, and yet what I take away from the film each time I watch it is the palpable warmth and love contained within. The film has a sincerity to it that is never strident, never overstated, never pedantic. The film states that it doesn't take very much effort to make your children feel loved, and it expresses that with great joy. If Walt Disney had only made this one film, his legacy in film history would be assured -- for producing the greatest family film ever made.
-- Ernest Rister
This movie means so much to me personally. I can't even count the hours I spent as a young child playing my LP album and looking at the pictures in the fold-out booklet. After more than thirty years, to have the chance to see this film projected in my own living room with the wealth of special-feature content included on this 2-disc DVD set is a privilege for which I’m extremely grateful.
Reviewing Philosphy Clarified...
Given some of the inevitable controversy that will surround this DVD presentation (or at least my review of it), I think its timely to present a clearly defined philosophy for how I "judge" picture and sound quality. I often find that disagreements about how a DVD looks or sounds stem more from the premises from which individuals approach these concepts and less about how the DVD literally looks or sounds. While diversity may be a good thing in many walks of life, when it comes to the philosophies that guide the presentation of the art of film, we should have some shared understanding among the film collectors and content providers alike.
I think we need to start by agreeing that a DVD should replicate for the home-viewer, as faithfully as possible, the [theatrical] picture and sound experience as intended by the original artist(s). Although it may not be fashionable to think in these terms, it's important to establish that this concept of faithful-to-the-source/the artist’s intensions should be the goal of a consumer-delivery format, and not merely what "looks best" given the particular tastes of the individual viewer or DVD producer.
During mastering and playback, this philosophy manifests itself with a "less is more" approach to avoid unnecessarily altering the image or sound. While accepted in audiophile circles, this leave-the-signal-alone philosophy runs contrary to the general culture of modern mixing/mastering for “commodity” recordings where many recording engineers brag that they have a digital workstation with dials "that go to eleven". This is why we see so many DVDs processed with too much filtering and DNR to remove “grain” with distracting edge-ringing to enhance “sharpness”. This is why we hear soundtracks that are dull and stripped of their high-end and resolution to remove “hiss” with remixed elements that destroy the integrity of historic directional dialog and mix all the vocal tracks to the center channel. Had these technicians simply left the signals in their original state and just taken a long lunch instead, the end consumer would have experienced something beautiful, and faithful to the original work of art.
Case in point: Curious as to why a particular DVD title looked so filtered, non-filmlike, and lacking in resolution on my display, I once spoke with (respected) studio person responsible for DVD mastering who explained to me that the DVD “utilized a pristine, newly restored print that looked stunning at the Egyptian Theater” and then in the next breath continued “of course we had to apply a lot of filtering to remove the grain for the DVD”. I hope that I’m not the only HTF member who sees the irony in this logic...
I view film as art, and I review a DVD according to how faithfully, or transparently (to use a good audiophile term) it replicates that art in accordance with the intentions of those responsible for creating it. Whether a DVD looks grainy or whether a soundtrack has audible hiss is not the issue; it’s whether that DVD has electronic/digital artifacts (EE, DNR, excessive HF filtering, compression noise etc.) that mar the experience that the director intended me to see. Being realistic, technology offers us new options when transferring older films to DVD that did not necessarily exist when the content was originally produced, and there may be times that can be argued that modifying the presentation in some way for DVD may be justified. Such changes need to be exercised with caution, and if any changes are made to the presentation (such as remixing an older mono film for 5.1 or digitally cleaning up matte lines from optical special effects), those changes need to enhance the intentions of the original artists, not work against them.
The "Home-Theater" experience is an ever-evolving paradigm that has been gaining momentum ever since the first Disco-Vision disc rolled off the press and was watched on an uncalibrated 4x3 480-interlaced NTSC television. Displays will improved in quality, decrease in cost, and it won’t be long before many of you who think you are quite happy with your standard or hi-definition TV will find yourself watching movies on a 100-inch 1080-progressive display where many of the subtle artifacts you used to hear other people complain about become all too apparent. Home-video will soon become the principle delivery method for what used to be the art of “film”, so the corporate culture that governs mastering practices will have a larger and larger effect on the films with which we come in contact. Its time for the studios learn how to honor their films as “art” and develop home-video mastering philosophies that support this understanding. The artists, consumers, and films, will all benefit.
Thank-you for listening...
Overall, the image of this new 16x9 (FINALLY!) DVD is beautiful with a few minor caveats that deserve to be mentioned.
Let’s start with the positive, shall we?
I’ve grown up watching Mary Poppins in every available format (35mm projection, broadcast television, VHS, Laserdisc, 4x3 DVD, and now this latest DVD installment), and to date this is the best image presentation I have encountered. Gone is the plague of print damage that has marred past video incarnations. Gone is the chroma noise and crawl that was ever-present on the former laserdiscs and DVD. And most impressively though controversial, gone are the dust and matting anomalies that betrayed many of the effects-sequences (and there are many) in all former presentations. These special-effects-artifacts were a serious source for distraction; they drew attention away from the desired illusions by emphasizing the optical mechanics used to create them. For this reason, despite the deviation from the original film presentation, I personally view this modification as an enhancement to the image in that it (arguably) serves the intent of the original artists to convey a visual illusion. This is my subjective evaluation (felt the same way about Sleeping Beauty), and I’m sure there will be purists who disagree and object to such digital clean-up as altering the look and feel of the film in such a way that harms its historical integrity as a work of art. Such a point is also valid, and I encourage mature and diplomatic discussion along these points in this thread.
From what I’ve been told, the same Lowry Digital folks who so stunningly digitally cleaned up Singing in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis were also responsible for bringing this new-life to Mary Poppins, and while not quite up to the level of the “stunning” results achieved with those two Warner Brothers titles, the image of this new Mary Poppins reveals a kind of purity you’d associate with those DVDs.
Black level is solid and colors are nicely saturated (though not overly-so...I think the "bloom" of Mr. Bank's red smoking jacket is in the film print) and come across more vividly than both the Archive Edition Laserdisc set and the most recent Laserdisc/non-anamorphic R1 DVD release. Image detail is also the best in regards to any previous video version I’ve privy to view, though I’m still tempted to say that the image has the typical “Disney Filtered” look (more on that later). MPEG compression seems admirably accomplished and though I found instances of MPEG macro-blocking in a few backgrounds (the blue sky in “Jolly Holiday”) on occasion, it didn’t give cause for alarm. Grayscale seems smooth and even and color gradients seem smooth as well. I didn’t find any instances of posturization or color-banding (other than the few backgrounds) so if its there it didn’t pull me out of the “viewing experience” with my 106-inch screen (Gosh I just love typing that...my 106-inch screen...). Did I mention that this new presentation is 16x9 anamorphic?
Before I share some of my “concerns” let me reiterate that, overall, the image looks beautiful. Keep that context as you read my more critical remarks...
Firstly, contrast--it just never seems like the image gets bright enough, though it may very well be correct. The former DVD and non-archive laserdisc look the same way; it feels like every scene was shot on an overcast day and I keep waiting for the clouds to part and the sun to shine. I know it's supposed to look like "London" but even the indoor scenes that are brightly lit still have a character that feels a little on the dark side. While I hardly suggest that the archive edition laserdisc is a reference point for concluding what the 35mm film presentation should have looked like, I find it interesting that the archive LD looks much brighter (though it looks a little "pumped" and it probably too bright), and day-time scenes look like the sun is shining. Those of you with a better memory or knowledge of the intended 35mm film presentation in this regard please share your insights. I wouldn't have wanted the DVD producer to artifically brighten the image to suit my tastes...I'm more interested in clarifying that this is indeed the intended look of the film.
Next up: Flesh tones. Like with the brightness of the image, I can’t help but get this nagging feeling that something’s "off" with the color spectrum. I’m not talking about color saturation here...I’m talking about tint and hue. Flesh tones look decidedly green/orange and many faces look overly-brown as a result. This same anomaly existed to some degree on both the archive LD and former DVD/LD but the “green thing” seems a little stronger here. It makes me wonder if the color-timing technician bothered to pull out a historic print or checked with someone who worked on the film to confirm the color balance was correct. Curiously, these “off” flesh tones were also color issues that I couldn’t help but be bothered by when watching the Vault releases of Pollyanna and Parent Trap (original). And even more curious...the bonus material on both of those discs contains clips of the film that appear to have gorgeous color that feels properly balanced. The bonus material on the Mary Poppins DVD also has a few movie clips that, while far from perfect, appear to have more natural flesh-tones as well. Food for thought...my suspicion is that the bonus material has incurred less “processing” and more accurately reflects the source elements in these cases whereas the feature film has been digitally altered for better or for worse. Just a theory.
Despite being more detailed than the previous video versions you’ve seen, the image leaves me with the impression that it has been slightly filtered. In the bonus material, there are a few shots from the film that look notably clearer, though some of them appear to be taken from film sources other than the finished feature so I don’t want to make any hard judgments here...just pointing out what I see. The image also has present some low-level EE that was visible at times from my 1.6 screen-width distance though not distracting...which isn’t problematic in itself though it does suggest that this new Mary Poppins DVD did not escape Buena Vista’s usual “filter and boost” routine. The image reminds me a bit of Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland...both gorgeous to look at but on a large wide-angle viewing system just a tad soft on the high-end with a touch of ringing on the occasional hard edge if you look closely.
Not quite practically perfect...but you deserve to know how this image looks within a 30-degree viewing angle. Those with smaller viewing angles as with conventional TV viewing distance/image-size ratios may find the image to look pleasingly sharp. When I back up to about 2 screen-widths away the image starts to “snap” so I imagine that most viewers will not find any fault in the perception of detail in the picture.
As RAH stated in another thread:
Disney Home Video has produced some beautiful DVD versions of their classic film features. In most cases they've changed the overall look. Much of the early animation no longer has the hand painted look and Disney "dust" that have been part of the image through the years.
Once again, with Mary Poppins, the film no longer looks precisely as it did forty years ago. Which in this case is a positive attribute.
Mary Poppins is now clean and clear and sharper than I recall it being, with more detail...
but the major point is that the matte lines from the sodium vapor process, which surrounded live objects in scenes shared with animation, are substantially reduced or gone.
The overall image and the new effect is beautiful.
Why can’t these things just be simple?
[*]Archive Edition Laserdisc: Appears to be around 1.66-1.75:1 in aspect ratio…definitely narrower than 1.85:1. This image appears to have roughly the same amount of left/right info as the new 16x9 DVD, though the image appears slightly shifted to the left revealing a tad more info on the right hand side and a tad less info on the left. The image appears to have the most vertical information of all three versions I tested…especially along the top-edge of the image. It’s worth noting that if I “zoom” the 4x3 letterboxed image on my 16x9 screen this additional info along the top and bottom are cropped…so realistically only 4x3 viewers would get to appreciate it (one of the problems with 4x3 encoded aspect ratios narrower than 1.77:1). One thing that I have not heard anyone else mention regarding the Archive Edition LD is that the image also appears slightly “fat”, as if circles that should be round are slightly egg-shaped (stretched left-to-right). Faces seem a bit stretched and when Mary Poppins gets out the snow-globe with the Cathedral and doves during the “Feed the Birds” song the distorted geometry is very apparent. This may explain how this version which appears to not have a wider aspect ratio than the new DVD actually captures more vertical picture information…the image looks slightly vertically compressed (similar but not as extreme as the image on 20,000 Leagues).
[*]Non-anamorphic R1 DVD (and presumably laserdisc): This image appears to be a true 1.85:1 framing and the geometry looks correct with no stretching or compression along either axis. This image has the most left-right picture information especially along the right side of the image. However, the top of the image appears vertically cropped a bit from what is seen on the Archive LD.
[*]New 16x9 R1 DVD: Framing feels reasonably comfortable, though the image does not reveal the full left/right information of the 1.85:1 non-anamorphic disc (especially along the right hand side) and appears to have about the same vertical picture information as the 1.85:1 disc with maybe a tad more vertical along the bottom of the image. [/list]
Whew! So what does it mean? Update: I recently learned that Mary Poppins was intended for theatrical presentations ranging from 1.66:1 to 1.85, and that (similar to many of their modern animated classics) a 1.66:1 framing would actually reveal the most image content with the least amount of cropping. However, given the increased vertical information we see on the laserdisc and given the increased horizontal information we see on the non-anamorphic DVD, it's my suspician that this new 1.66:1 presentation was not sourced from the original elements (which would have "opened up" the frame) but rather cropped down from an existing transfer in order to acheive the 1.66:1 AR. This is my suspician of course, but it seems that while we've got Mary Poppins in its arguably proper aspect ratio, we may very well have an overly-cropped compromise. I'll post back with any more insights if I can determine more...
Keep in mind that these differences are minimal between each format, and likely more content is lost or gained via matting in a projection booth depending on who’s manning the equipment the day you visit the theater, so it’s not worth getting too worked up over. On my projection screen the left/right pillarboxing bars are quite visible since my projector has been calibrated for minimal overscan. Those of you who don’t see the side-bars wouldn’t have seen the picture information that they hide anyway…but for those of you with displays that reveal all the left/right image content your video signal can deliver, you will probably wonder why the video guys decided to (needlessly?) mask off the left and right sides of your screen. Anyone in the know about this matter, please post to this thread or contact me privately if you wish to remain anonymous…
Oh yes. As you may already be aware of, the historic 1964 “Buena Vista” title card logo has been replaced with the modern Disney-castle style logo. While not critical (I’d take a color-corrected image over a title-card any day), I find it a shame that my memory of that great logo and audio score that accompanied it can not be revisited on this “special edition” DVD presentation. Again…one must ask why would such a decision have been made? The appearance of that title card for those of us with previous viewing memories of Mary Poppins signified the beginning of this magical tale, and was part of the finished feature. While I’m still happy to enjoy the image that this new 16x9 DVD affords, there is a sense of loss associated with the replaced opening logo.
So after all that, he really thinks the image is “beautiful”? Yes. It’s not perfect, and it’s got some problems, but you know, so did the original 35mm elements. So while I wait for the yet-to-come “definitive” Mary Poppins hi-definition release that I pray will address all of my concerns, I’m very, very pleased to enjoy this disc in the meantime.
Picture Quality: 4 / 5
:star: :star: :star: :star:
In the past I think I've been too ambiguous with my scoring or at least haven't applied it consistently from title to title, so I've endeavored to define my rating system more clearly to help make the scoring more meaningful (for all titles reviewed December 2004 and later):
SCORE Description 1-2 An absolute abomination. Hurts to watch. Think "Outland" (scan-line aliasing, chroma noise, dotcrawl)-- truly horrid. 2-3 Has some serious problems, but one can at least watch it without getting a headache despite all the problems though you might try to talk your guests into picking a different movie to watch if you have a large projection screen. Think Cold Mountain. 3-4 Good or at least "acceptable" on a big-screen, but not winning any awards and definitely room for improvement if you view the image wide-angle (though smaller-screen viewers may be quite content). Think the first extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring...decent picture but still some HF filtering and some edge-halos. 4-5 A reference picture that really makes the most of the DVD medium and shows extraordinary transparency to the film-source elements. Non-videophile observers can't help but remark "WOW". Think The Empire Strikes Back or the Fifth Element Superbit (sans EE for a flat-out "5").
I don't think any other DVD has offered me more to talk about regarding audio than this new Marry Poppins disc. I've spent days writing and re-writing my thoughts on this matter and doing my best to stay objective and do some research to make sure my comments represent these issues fairly. If you skipped over my "reviewing philosophy" section earlier, it's time to stop and familiarize yourself with the perspective from which I'm viewing all of this.
Disney has provided a "Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix" on this set. This is your only 5.1 English option. Curiously, there is also a 2.0 DD "Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix", and then there is a 2.0 DD soundtrack labeled "original theatrical mix". There is a French and Spanish track encoded in 5.1 though I did not take the time to do a critical review of the alternate-language soundtracks.
5.1 DEHT Mix...
Soundtrack option number one and the default that beings when you play the disc unless you manually select another soundtrack.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Terry Porter's DEHT mix on the Lion King, and to a lesser extent the DEHT mix on Aladdin (excepting the vocal tracks for musical numbers being placed in the surround channels), at first I was elated to discover that Disney was offering a new "enhanced" mix for Mary Poppins. The 5.1 audio of the previous DVD always seemed a tad "thin", and given the beauty of the sound of the stereo LPCM on the old archive edition laserdisc, I knew that Disney had great-sounding elements to work with. I'm sorry to report that not only do I find the 5.1 DEHT mix not pleasing, but I'm compelled to say that I am disgusted. Given my respect for his work and his own respect for the historical integrity of the soundtracks that he produces, I suspect that Terry Porter had little, if anything, to do with this new "DEHT" mix on Mary Poppins.
Bass... The first thing you'll discover with the 5.1 DEHT mix is that the bass has been ramped up to an unbelievable, and inappropriate level. A bit of bass would be welcome for the few effects shots that warrant it...such as the cannon from the Admiral or the fireworks explosions...but that's not what we're talking about here. Oh no, the DEHT mix is a veritable subwoofer-fest...imagine a convention where subwoofer salesmen are all gathering to pit their woofers against each other and find an excuse in almost every scene to rattle the china in your cupboard. Musical numbers are so bass heavy it's almost nauseating. And while I would not have begrudged the mixing engineers from improving the low-end frequency response a bit from the original master, what's happening here is bombastic, gimmicky, and severely distracting. In no way (in my opinion, as are all of my editorializing comments) does this serve the "intent of the original artists". Not at all attractive to my way of thinking.
Highs... The enhanced mix has been severely dampened on the top-end, most likely in an effort to remove "hiss" from the historic master. Reminds me of the sound when you'd hit the "Dolby B" noise-reduction button on your tape deck with a cassette not encoded for Dolby NR. You must remember that "hiss" is something that modern-day technicians can hear and process away to "improve" the sound. They may not understand what a natural midrange sounds like, or what a 3-dimensional soundstage is or what "air" in a recording with low-level ambient detail is like...but they sure know about hiss. So working with what they know, they've not only stripped out the hiss but taken a good chunk of the high-end detail along with it for good measure. Can't risk any of that nasty hiss getting through now can we!? In comparison to the linear PCM of the Archive Edition laserdisc, the DEHT 5.1 mix at times sounds like someone has wrapped a towel around your tweeters...especially on vocal tracks during musical presentations...naturally just when you'd want your vocals to sound as unnatural as possible...added to this, the midrange has a strangely "dry" sound and vocals sound magnified and overblown in character.
The dampening of the highs varies from scene to scene and effect to effect, sometimes it's almost negligible but then it finds its way into an orchestral movement and while you're being bounced across your living room from all the new thumpy bass that's been loaded into the new mix you wonder why the fidelity of the music that once filled you with emotion in viewings past suddenly sounds more like an AM radio broadcast (Interestingly, the 2.0 mix sounds much more detailed with a more airy and open high-end than the 5.1 mix (and therefore substantially better IMO) and the 2.0 theatrical mix sounds the best in this regard with the most natural vocal presentation and most detailed sound). In comparison to the original sound (especially on the laserdisc), there is very little musicality left to the songs (who needed that anyway?) and all sense of airy realism has been stripped from the score and dialog...both spoken and sung...but hey...there's no hiss so it sounds great! Even with no A/B comparison, the INSTANT the 5.1 DEHT mix started to play I knew something was wrong. The only other soundtrack that I've reviewed that came close to this travesty of a filtered top-end was the 5.1 DD mix on Fox's Hello Dolly (which sounds vastly inferior to the 5.1 AC-3 mix on the former laserdisc of the same).
And remember how consumers stormed the Buena Vista production facilities back when that Archive edition laserdisc was released in protest of all the hiss in the LPCM audio? I remember one picketer chained himself to the doors of the studio wearing ear-plugs because his hearing had been permanently damaged by the hiss he endured while watching the movie. It certainly is understandable why the mixing engineers felt the need to sacrifice the fidelity of Mary Poppins' beautiful and award winning soundtrack to avoid future such tragedies with this new DVD...
Worth noting here is that this new mix places much of the music and orchestral score in the surround channels in an effort to keep the mix from sounding front-heavy. While I don't necessarily decry the mixers for doing this given the brazenly "new" marketing angle of the mix, I do personally find this a bit distracting as it tends to muddy the sound of the music (especially if you have dipole surrounds, as most home-theaters do) and you lose the illusion of watching a show with the orchestra placed in front of you in the pit...which was the aesthetic that the original mixers had in mind. I don't know about you, but when I go to see live music, I rarely sit in the middle of the orchestra....
Foley effects... Ok folks. This is where the word "disgusting" seemed justified. Remember all of the hullabaloo about the re-recorded gun shots in Universal's R1 DVD of Vertigo? Remember all the fuss over the newly recorded foley effects for the Waner Brother's Superman? Well, Mary Poppins has joined the club of 5.1 mixes that have had their effects overhauled for home-video. And why not? I mean, when a historic mix was nominated for an Oscar because of its excellent sound and the film's audio mixing engineers achieved just the balance of music, dialogue, and effects they were looking for...what better way to honor the film's 40th anniversary than to overlay newly recorded sound effects for a new-and-improved DEHT mix! They're easy to discern even with all the boomy sub-cracking bass because they are the only sounds in the 5.1 mix that have any high-frequencies to them (remember, had to filter all those highs out of the original audio to get rid of that hiss). Now. Honestly. I've tried to be open minded about this. And in fact, since the new-mix is presented along side of the "original", what does it hurt...right? And in one scene I was nearly convinced that some of the new folies were used to good effect--the fireworks scene where the chimney sweeps are dancing on the rooftop. In this scene for perhaps the only time in the film, you get some legitimate discrete surround sound activity as fireworks go zooming overhead and explode with a presence that's quite pleasing. Notice that I said nearly convinced, because while this scene plays quite nicely on its own with the new 5.1 DEHT mix, in the context of the rest of the film it stands out and becomes a source of distraction when you suddenly think to yourself, "my don't those newly recorded fireworks effects sound impressive...much more exciting that the historic mix with which I'm familiar...". So I give this one scene a little grace in that, on its own, the new audio presentation is quite pleasing, though in the context of watching the feature-length film, it stands out a little too much and draws attention to itself.
If that were the extent of the new foley effects I think I could be forgiving. But it is not. Nearly every scene has been contaminated with these newly-recorded sound effects...even the "it ain't broke so why fix it" scenes which leaves me baffled. Most disturbing to me, when Mary Poppins takes Bert and the children by the hand and pops into the pavement chalk-picture...just listen to the "caa-pooof!" sound in the new mix when then vanish into the picture. No Kidding. It had me shaking my head in disbelief. It goes on...an even better "kerrr-pooof!" awaits you when the children come popping out of the chimney right before the rooftop adventure among the coal-fire smoke of London. Hey...do you like the "whiiissssss" of the new wind sound-effects while Mary and company are prancing through the smoke-stacks? Really neat! More subversive are the newly recorded effects that don't necessarily make themselves known on casual listening...like the sound of the footsteps of the beagles in the fox-chase scene in the Jolly Holiday sequence. And in general, newly recorded sounds of clothes rustling and footsteps abound. Virtually every scene has has new foley effects added in some way. Scary...
So how do I really feel about the new 5.1 DEHT mix???
Enough is enough. It's one thing to help "fix" a technical issue (like the visible matte lines) that was an unavoidable artifact based on the technology of the time that even the original creators would have preferred to have changed had they had the option. But there was nothing wrong with stereo recording technology in the 1960's...in fact, some of the best-recorded jazz and orchestral recordings come from this era...and at the very least, if there were or were not sound effects present in the original mix its because that's the way the artists wanted it and not because didn't know how to do it better. Some folks may enjoy it, and others may even praise it. I'm not going to pass judgment on anyone who happens to like the new mix. But I will tell you that in a historical and aesthetic context, my opinion is that the new mix is a bastardization of the crafted artistry of the original sound of Mary Poppins. These new effects are bombastic, and do nothing to serve the integrity of the film. Decide for yourself how you feel.
5.1 DEHT Sound Quality: 2.5 / 5
2.0 DEHT mix...
Soundtrack option number two.
Sounds "better" than the 5.1 mix in terms of having a more extended and airy high-frequency response which better preserves the fidelity of the original recording (especially with vocals) and has somewhat more tamed (tasteful) bass. The recording level of this mix is slightly lower than the 5.1 DEHT mix so you may need to adjust your volume when doing some A/B comparing. If you don't mind the newly recorded foley effects, this mix is a nice compromise between the more forceful sound of the 5.1 mix and the more relaxed sound of the original 2.0 mix if you want to enjoy something different than what the original artists had in mind.
2.0 DEHT Sound Quality: 3 / 5
:star: :star: :star:
2.0 Original Mix...
Soundtrack option number three.
This mix has the highest objective sound-quality of the three English-language tracks...but the disc producers have tried their best to disguise that fact and keep you from listening to it by recording it at a shockingly lower level than either of the two DEHT mixes. You have to turn your volume knob up quite a bit to get anything close to "level matched" sound when toggling from the first two DEHT mixes to this one (Disney DVDs allow you to use the audio button on your remote to toggle between audio tracks with the disc in play...a much appreciated feature). I've read other impressions where folks have said that this mix lacks life and bottom end but if you take the time to really listen and turn up the volume, you'll find that this mix is very impressive, has a reasonable bottom end (though it could stand to be a little deeper but I'm not complaining), and open, natural, airy highs. Voices sound natural and the orchestral passages sound "lush" and vivid and don't have the dry over-blown/artificial sound like the 5.1 DEHT mix.
But even so it's not the "original" mix that I had hoped for, and still lacks the sparkle and resolution of the LPCM from the laserdisc...though it comes much closer than I thought a 2.0 DD-encoded track could come. My real gripe, is that we just get this in 2.0. HELLO!? The original Mary Poppins master is a 3-channel stereo mix (L-C-R) and with the flexibility of Dolby Digital channel configuration this could easily have been replicated exactly in a 3.0 DD mix...keeping each channel discrete and avoiding the ProLogic processing of having a matrixed center. Also, any ambient information could have been placed in the surround channels and encoded as a full 5.1 mix...utilizing the front three channels to exactly replicate the source master elements and the surround to provide the ambient cues. That's basically what the 5.1 mix on the previous non-anamorphic DVD does and it sounds very nice from a "mix" standpoint (though the treble on that recording seems a little bright with too lean a bottom-end) and get this Region-1 people...it seems that consumers in a few PAL countries are getting *their* original mix in full 5.1 with much improved fidelity. How does that make you feel?
(taking a deep breath...)
Were it not for the slightly bright sound of the former 5.1 mix I would have voted it the best-sounding of all the "original" audio presentations on home-video in the States, tied with the lush but less "clean" sound of the LPCM of the Archive Edition laserdisc.
As it stands, all three original-audio presentations have something going for them...the laserdisc has the most naturally timbered midrange and sense of resolution and bass, the 5.1 mix on the previous DVD has the clearest vocal tracks by way of the discrete 5.1 encoding but at times can be a tad shrill, and the newer 2.0 mix sounds smooth and pleasing, though could have benefited from discrete L-C-R encoding rather than having everything matrixed into a 2.0 format.
Given all the options and the stunningly improved image on this DVD, I will watch this disc but listen ONLY to the original mix.
2.0 Original Mix Sound Quality: 4 / 5
:star: :star: :star: :star:
Sound Summary: A Plea: What frightens me is that most viewers who watch Mary Poppins on this new DVD edition...many for the first time...will only hear this movie presented in the newly-recorded 5.1 DEHT mix which is the default audio track, and even if they become curious and click over to the original mix on track 3 they're likely to say "oh, that doesn't sound good" because it's been recorded at such a miserably lower level. It would be shame for a child's first experience with the music of this film to be the "vision" of the techies in the sound labs with their noise-reduction dials and bag of foley effects, so please take care, those of you who respect the historical integrity of this movie masterpiece, to choose the soundtrack crafted by the artists who created the film when sharing this DVD experience with your family.
The bonus material on this new Mary Poppins set is phenomenal. I don't care how many times you've purchased Mary Poppins on home-video before; the special feature content on this set alone more-than-justifies the purchase of this 40th Anniversary Edition. The special features are genuinely special and excel far beyond the average "SE" fare. The bonus material is interesting, engaging, often of great historical value, worth repeated viewing, and at times quite touching. I'll stick a next to the features that really impressed me. Enough prattle...let's get to it!
[*] Feature Commentary: A dream come-true, join Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Sherman, and Karen Dotrice (the little girl "Jane") for a wonderful walk down memory lane with interspersed historic audio recordings from Walt and other film-artists...similar to the style of the commentary track on Sleeping Beauty (which is a high compliment). Most of the conversation between Julie and Dick/Karen and Richard involves reminiscing about old friendships, behind-the-scene surprises, anecdotes about filming various scenes, history behind various songs, production decisions and the like. It's perfectly marvelous. The chemistry between them is melodious. They converse with ease and grace and you start to appreciate how rare and precious a gift it was to have such a rich combination of talent come together (along with the many others who worked on aspects of the film not included in the commentary here). The dynamic between these folks is wonderful, and I found myself wanting to sit and listen to the entire commentary (which is not something I normally feel tempted to do with commentary tracks, so right away I knew I was experiencing something very special with this feature). The Julie/Dick and Karen/Richard commentary was recorded separately and so from time to time the commentary of Julie/Dick pauses and Richard/Karen's input comes in. The flow between the two groups is comfortable and it adds an element of interest.
Karen's comments are generally less informative as she was only a very young child and so her memories and experiences of the film are from a very different perspective; however, I enjoyed her contribution greatly and it was precisely because her perspective was from the point of view of one of the two children that this was so. I was about her age when I first saw Mary Poppins myself and enjoyed sifting through my own memories along side her own. And most welcome, at many times our contemporary guests pause and introduce historic recordings of Walt and other artisans which are intercut in a fashion relevant to the commentary conversation and on-screen context. Outstanding.
Quite a nicely assembled commentary track blending current screen-specific dialog from two locations with historic pre-recorded material in an effective, informative, and enjoyable fashion.
[*]Pop-up Fun Facts: Actually part of the subtitle feature, this pops up little trivia fun-facts during disc-play and I actually found some of the facts interesting and worth the while to explore (much of the same material though you'll cover in the commentary and other special features).
[*]Music Play: As with many of Disney's other high-profile musical releases, you can select songs from a play-list and view sing-along lyrics (part of the subtitle feature) while you watch.[/list]
[*]The Cat That Looked At a King: This new animated (hand drawn) short is based on one of the Poppins short-stories and is hosted by Julie Andrews. Her contribution not withstanding, personally I found the writing uninspiring and the story not very moving. The feature is 16x9 enhanced WS and has "good" picture quality though some compresison artifacting was evident especially in dark backgrounds.
[*] Deleted Song: "Chimpanzoo": Actually a snippet from the bonus feature "A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman", Richard himself presents this deleted song inspiringly as he floats in Uncle Albert's parlor making use of a conveniently levitating piano. Along with music composition and lyricism, Richard possesses quite the talent for acting himself, and carries off the humor of the situation with aplomb. First-rate.
[*] A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman: This marvelous 20 minute featurette is hosted by Richard Sherman and ends with the Deleted "Chimpanzoo" song performance that can be directly accessed from the menu as well. Richard is a class-act, and the look and feel of this featurette compliment his charisma perfectly making excellent use of his personality, wit, and humor. This feature details many of the stories behind the fantastic music of this film...all the musical numbers were written exclusively for this movie which I had never known. Lots of great information here and Richard Sherman is worth watching just for his own wonderful self. I found this feature entertaining as well as informative...Don't miss this one...
[*] A Magical Reunion: Features the same three-some from the commentary: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Richard Sherman. The conversation here is very similar to what you'll hear in the audio commentary for the feature film and some of what you'll hear in Richard's own featurette but don't let that tempt you to dismiss it. It's about 17 minutes long (all the disney menues tell you the run-time of each feature...great idea) and well-worth the time spent with this magical trio.
[*]Love to Laugh Game: didn't check it out. Hey...I've got enough to write about!
[*] Supercalifragiliticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins: An incredible 50-minute journey with much of the cast with plenty of re-watch potential. Don't let the brevity of this description fool you...this is a fantastic featurette (or at almost an hour long...maybe "feature" is a better term to use). Dick Van Dyke hosts this marvelous documentary and here's where you'll see some behind-the-sets archival footage and learn about many of the effects, obstacles, and production decisions.
[*] Deconstruction of a Scene: Watch two complete scenes from the film, Jolly Holiday and Step in Time, a