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January 3, 2023

Breaking Down Mary Poppins According to Dan Harmon's Story Circle

Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964) is one of the most beloved films in history. Set in the British Edwardian period, the movie follows the adventures of a magical nanny who takes care of two children while teaching them about life's most important lessons. 

What can we learn from the plot structure of Mary Poppins as well as the Mary Poppins characters and how might we apply that in our own work? Let’s break down the film according to Dan Harmon’s Story Circle method.

Mary Poppins pictured flying in the sky with her magical umbrella.
The firm but eccentric nanny Mary Poppins with her flying umbrella is the protagonist in the Disney film of the same name.

What is Mary Poppins about? 

The children's father - George Banks - is a cold, rigid banker who has no time for his family. But the children's mother - Winifred Banks - is loving and kind, even though she has to work long hours at a job she hates in order to provide for her family.

It is based on the novel of P.L. Travers. Disney worked hard to get the movie made, having loved the book but it was a decades-long struggle for him to convince the author to hand over the rights.

What are the main themes in Mary Poppins?

​​The first theme is that of family. In the movie, Mary Poppins helps the Banks family to become closer together. She does this by showing them how fun it can be to work together as a family and how entertaining it is to have family time.

 For example, when she takes them on an outing to the park, she encourages them all to play together and have fun.

The second theme is one of love. Mr. Banks has very little experience with love and affection from his parents or from his wife, who is usually very busy with her job as a banker. It is only through Mary Poppins that he learns what it means to be loved and cared for on a daily basis. 

He also begins to understand how much his children need him as their father and how important it is for him to give them more attention than he has been able to give them previously because of his work schedule at the bank.

Why is Mary Poppins so popular 50 years on? 

One reason could be that it features familiar characters that people love: The children who need help with their problems, the mother who tries to do everything she can for her kids but can’t really understand them, and the father who tries to keep everything under control but gets overwhelmed by his own life at times.

Another reason could be that it has iconic songs: “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or A Spoonful of Sugar are often heard in commercials and movies today. They are catchy and upbeat. 

Think about the kind of themes and ideas that are explored in your script and how they could be incorporated into a musical score. 

Who are the main characters in Mary Poppins

Let’s break down the list of main characters in Mary Poppins

Jane and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber)

The two Banks children are frequently neglected by their parents. Their father works at a bank and their mother is campaigning for women’s right to vote as one of the suffragettes. 

George Banks (David Tomlinson)

George Banks is the father of Michael and Jane Banks. He is often overworked at the bank and is seen as a sensible figure who is not interested in having any fun. Jane and Michael find it difficult to connect with him.

David Tomlinson playing George Banks, He is dressed in a suit and a black hat with a red rose in his pocket
David Tomlinson as George Banks, the father in Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews)

The magical nanny with an umbrella, she arrives to take care of Jane and Michael after a series of failed nannies. She promises to stay only until the wind changes. Whilst in her care, Mary Poppins teaches Jane and Michael how to have fun as well as the importance of discipline. 

Bert (Dick Van Dyke)

Mary’s close friend, is a chimney sweep. He accompanies her on many of her adventures and is less strict than Mary Poppins. He does not possess magical powers like Mary. 

Breaking down Mary Poppins according to Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle highlights the cyclical nature of story telling and allows us to understand the simplicity of the Mary Poppins story arc.

A diagram depicting the different sections of Dan Harmon's Story Circle
A diagram depicting Dan Harmon's Story Circle

The character is in their comfort zone

Jane and Michael Banks are at home bored and frustrated because they do not get enough attention from their parents whilst being passed from nanny to nanny.

Character desires something

Jane and Michael desire structure from their parents and excitement rather than being stuck inside all day. Their wishes come true with the arrival of Mary Poppins who magically swoops away all the other candidates to become nanny. 

Character enters an unfamiliar situation

Jane and Michael are at first confused by Mary Poppins who comes across as a strict disciplinarian. ‘Close your mouth Michael, we are not a codfish’ is a memorable line. 

Character adapts to the situation

Jane and Michael eventually get used to Mary Poppins and her eccentric ways, realising that this is what their parents want. They question Mary less and less. 

Character gets what they want

Jane and Michael go on giddy and great adventures with Mary Poppins and are introduced to Mary’s close friend, the chimney sweep, Bert. 

Bert tells Mr Banks that he needs to spend more time with his children. Soon they will be grown up and he’ll never get that time back. 

For a while everything is fun, there is lots of singing and dancing until…

They pay a heavy price for it

One of Mary and Bert’s adventures goes wrong as they upset the bank manager where their father Mr George Banks works and almost cause a run on the bank. 

As a result, George Banks is sacked from his job. Deflated he wonders how he is now going to support his family. 

Character returns to their familiar situation

Then Mr Banks sees a twopence (small denomination British coin from before decimalization) and begins to laugh as he remembers Mary Poppin’s words Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. 

The laugh is infectious and soon even Mr. Dawes, the bank manager, begins to laugh. 

They have changed as a result of their journey

The following day Mr Banks is at home fixing a kite that was previously broken in rage by Mr Banks. He is of a happier disposition and is more comfortable spending time at home with his children. 

We realize that Mary Poppins came not to fix the children, nor was this their journey, but to fix Mr. Banks, a character, dragged down by conflicting loyalties

The wind changes and Mary Poppins must now leave the Banks children, presumably to help assist another family.

What can we learn from the characters and structure of Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins is a story of redemption. We see how a bad parent, caught by the trappings of his work and the stress of everyday life loses sight of the one thing that matters, his family. It’s a great character arc

Whilst the film is called Mary Poppins, really the film isn’t about her. However, of all the Mary Poppins characters she is the vehicle that brings change. To Mr. Banks, she seems like a disruptive force bringing chaos to his household. 

However, we might opine that Mary Poppins is a reverse nanny. Her entire reason for existing is to show parents why they don’t need a nanny and should instead time raising their own children. This is never explicitly stated in the film. 

If you liked this blog be sure to download Arc Studio, a leading industry screenwriting software today. 

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Breaking Down Mary Poppins According to Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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