Mary Poppins: When Your Two Cents Make Up The Whole Story

Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) lulls the Banks children with her two-penny song.

MOTIVATIONS AT THE MIDPOINT: Arguments that Lead to Change

For the month of June, we’ll be focusing on the story arc as it relates to character motivations. To help with that, we’ll be analyzing several classic musicals.

Next up on our list of musical monologues is “Feed the Birds” from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964).

The song seems like such a sweet, lilting lullaby simply meant to put two misbehaving children to sleep. However, a deeper look at this number will show its narrative brilliance, for it artfully and skillfully presents to the audience the key to the whole story…

If you’re not familiar with this movie, Mary Poppins is a magical nanny who visits the Banks household because the children, Jane and Michael, keep running away from all the other nannies that their overly stern father keeps hiring. Cut to the chase—it’s actually their father, Mr. Banks (who incidentally works at a bank), who needs the true magic that Mary Poppins brings to the Banks home.

You see, in the beginning of the story, Mr. Banks sings about a belief he holds—an argument if you will—about family, marriage and children (“The Life I Lead”):  

A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less!
Tradition, discipline, and rules
Must be the tools.
Without them: Disorder! Catastrophe! Anarchy!

In short—We have a ghastly mess!

However, at the end of the story, he changes his tune (“Let’s Go Fly a Kite”):

With tuppence for paper and strings
You can have your own set of wings
With your feet on the ground
You’re a bird in a flight
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite…
Oh, oh, oh! Let’s go fly a kite!

He sings this as he skips out the front door hand-in-hand with his kids and wife. It’s quite a rather spontaneous and undisciplined thing to do, despite the risk of complete social catastrophe.

So how does Mary Poppins clean up the family dynamics while teaching the kids to clean up their toys? Well, she has an argument, or “two cents,” of her own that she shares through musical numbers in the middle of the story: including “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilistic…,” and “I Love to Laugh”

However, the one number that really ties everything together is “Feed the Birds” where she literally talks about two cents: the “tuppence” or two pence that it costs to buy a bag of bird seed from the lady on the steps of St. Paul’s Church in London.

This two cents is critical in the story because in the following scenes, that tuppence becomes the literal centerpiece of a thematic struggle between the children’s desire to do something playful and sentimental (“feed the birds”) and their father’s adult drive to “grind, grind, grind at that grindstone.”

It’s a struggle that plays out in a few beats.  First, Mr. Banks takes his children to the bank to deposit their tuppence. When they refuse, Mr. Banks’ boss grabs the tuppence from them.  So then, when they try to get it back, it causes a run on the bank. Mr. Banks then gets fired and comes home a broken man…

At that point, the children act with a heart of compassion—they give their father the tuppence in an act of peace over power. Mr. Banks learns his lesson—his children need a relationship more than his rules and precision—and takes their tuppence to buy some paper and string for a kite.

And so changing Mr. Banks motivations was the motivation for Mary Poppins popping into their home.

This lesson incidentally echoes the one Paul gave to the Corinthians—you can do great things, but without love, they will be like a clanging gong, a clashing cymbal, nothing with nothing to gain.

In fact, this great things won’t even be worth your two cents.


Below is a revised checklist of questions to ask in regard to your character motivations as they arc through the story. In going through the questions this time, focus on how character motivations are re-shaped by the thematic arguments in the story. The key here is to see how motivations are rooted in thematic arguments (beliefs and values), expressed narratively, and developed one of two ways: either increasing in impact (like Mary’s “two cents” / tuppence) or changing in an organic, satisfying resolution (like Mr. Banks flying a kite).


What does your character want? (This is the overall motivation they act upon.)

What’s stopping them? (This is the overall test of their motivation.)

What are they willing to do to overcome the obstacle? (This is basic shift in their motivations)

What is their outcome in the story? (This is the resolution of their motivation, and the proof for the story argument.)

What truth is the story trying to prove? (This is the thematic argument behind their struggle—the Bigger Truth)


What’s the problem your character is trying to solve? What problem is the story trying to explore?

What is your character trying to prove? How does it match or contradict what the story is trying to prove?

What urges and impulses are driving their decisions and actions? How are those being tested?

What is their core value that is driving their decisions and actions? How is that value being tested?

What beliefs and opinions does your character hold that are driving their decisions and actions? How are those beliefs/opinions being tested?

What emotions are driving their decisions and actions? How are those feelings and emotions being tested?

What are your character’s dream (vision) of an ideal life? What’s the story solution that is being tested?

What’s your character’s goal/plan? How is its success/failure affecting their motivations?

What risks are they willing to take to change their situation?

What change does your character need to grow? How is that re-directing or revising their motivations?

What other motivational factors are revealed as a result of the character being tested?


How is your character re-evaluating their motivations in context to the story/character change?

How is your character re-directing their motivations in context to the story/plot?

How are your character’s motivations being reshaped in context to the story/theme?

How is the character resolving motivations story/genre paying off the story/genre for the audience?

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