On Video & DVD: The magic of 'Mary Poppins' is irresistible

MARY POPPINS 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Buena Vista Home Entertainment; 139 minutes; Rated G; $29.99, 2-disc DVD

Disney's vibrantly restored anniversary edition of the 1964 "Mary Poppins" is irresistible. My family was enthralled with its mixture of comic live-action and animation, a catchy score and acrobatic dancing — a combination that can hold its head up among today's technologically savvy movies.

As Bert the chimneysweep, Dick Van Dyke starts the movie off as a one-man-band performing in a London public square circa 1900. Although his antics delight the midmorning crowd, Bert garners only a few tuppence in tips. But he brightens when Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) arrives with her charges, young Jane and Michael Banks. Mary, an old friend of Bert's, has just been hired as the latest in a string of children's nurses at the well-to-do Banks household. But this magical nanny is nothing like the fuddy-duddies who preceded her.

Bert joins Mary and the children on their first outing together — an imaginary (or is it?) adventure to an animated countryside, where painted horses gallop away from the carousel and well-mannered penguins serve refreshments and entertain with a lively jig. Then Bert steps into the chorus line, his "penguin dance" cracking up my kids.

Mary's authoritative yet fun-loving manner easily wins over Jane and Michael. But it takes longer for her unusual brand of warmth and caring to penetrate the stuffy Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) — a banker who's all business and barely notices his family — and Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns), who's preoccupied with her social causes. Taking a tip from Mary Poppins, however, the busy parents eventually rediscover the value and pleasure of time spent with family.

Despite the film's age, its sensibilities are fairly modern, such as when Mr. Banks seems to discover his "inner child" and implores his surprised and delighted offspring to fly a kite with him. And, although the animation doesn't have the sophistication we've come to expect from computer-generated cartoons, the colorful scenes pairing live actors with animated characters look good enough not to detract from the action.

One of the snappiest musical numbers is "Step in Time," in which a fleet of chimneysweeps, led by Bert, dances high upon the city's rooftops with breathtaking athleticism.

The 40th Anniversary Edition comes with a second disc that includes a new animated short adapted from P.L. Travers' book "Mary Poppins Opens the Door." And don't miss the rare outtake of Mary Poppins yodeling.

Grade: A-

WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS

Buena Vista Home Entertainment; 86 minutes; PG; $29.99, DVD; $24.99, VHS

"Where The Red Fern Grows" promises a lot up front: It's based on Wilson Rawls' best-selling novel, and it features Grammy Award-winning musician Dave Matthews in his film debut. But the movie doesn't quite deliver. While the basic story is interesting — and Matthews isn't bad — this new production lacks the dramatic power of the book.

Like many a 10-year-old, Billy Coleman (Joseph Ashton) wants a puppy, but not the free collie pup available at his grandpa's store. Billy has his heart set on an expensive hunting dog that his family can't afford as it struggles to make ends meet with three young children and a farm.

So this determined boy does odd jobs for his neighbors to earn extra money. He saves enough to buy a pair of hound pups through an ad in the local paper. Scheming without his parents' knowledge, he sneaks off on foot before daybreak to pick up the puppies when they arrive at the post office in the next town.

When Billy returns later that afternoon, he explains his absence to his worried mother (Renee Faia) and shows her the puppies, which instantly win her over. Billy's father (Matthews) melts as well and all is forgiven — a little too quickly, perhaps.

Billy diligently trains the pair — which he names Little Ann and Old Dan — to sniff out raccoons and chase them up trees. As the pups grow, so do their skills, and soon Billy makes money for his family by selling raccoon skins. One day, on a bet with some neighbor boys, Billy's dogs root out a wily raccoon that's been pestering their farm for weeks. The hunt is successful, but the outing ends tragically. Billy vows he will never hunt again.

But his father and grandpa (Dabney Coleman) persuade him to enter the dogs in a countywide 'coonhound contest. While the dogs display their talent during the three-day event, Billy has a chance to show his own mettle.

What in print is a heartrending, coming-of-age tale has a narcotized quality in this production. Billy's mother appears oddly inexpressive much of the time; during a scene in which the dogs unravel her knitting, she sits and watches. Mom and Dad's empathetic style of parenting struck me as more nostalgic than authentic to a poor, hardworking, country family — as when Billy disappears without a word and his parents react with calm understanding. And, my 13-year-old (who had read the book) thought the hunting tragedy was laughably staged, while my 9-year-olds couldn't tell what had happened in this sanitized scene.

As a book, "Where the Red Fern Grows" is deftly written so that children can relate to Billy's character and feel his growing pains, giving the story its emotional power. In this new video, however, the storytelling and acting are uneven and never get below the surface.

Grade: C

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