Endless pixels have been spilled over this particular trope, and whether it’s “the scourge of modern cinema,” as Jezebel has suggested, or a harmless character archetype employed to create maximum comedic discomfort when paired with a rigid, anxious, and cold, male counterpart. The term was coined by The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin in 2007 during an assessment of the film Elizabethtown, whose central character, played by Kirsten Dunst, is the kind of “psychotically chipper waitress in the sky” who so divides audiences. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” Rabin writes, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Or, you know, to be kind to their children rather than train them to react to whistles, like dogs.
Maria, played with infinite grace by Julie Andrews, is an early exemplar of the kind of twee noughties heroine later embodied by Zooey Deschanel in New Girl and 500 Days of Summer. She makes clothes out of curtains. She takes the von Trapp children on cycling tours of scenic Austria, where she teaches them to sing. She doles out romantic advice to Liesl, who doesn’t need a governess, in an infinitely empathetic and non-judgmental way, even if that wisdom ultimately isn’t helpful (Rolfe’s betrayal of the von Trapps to the Nazis ends up being one of the cruelest movie twists of childhood). She directs ambitious and quirky puppet shows about lonely goatherds, and yodeling is involved. She employs parataxis to conquer fear, creating long lists of happy thoughts that comfort the children during a thunderstorm, and these happy thoughts are basically a description of Taylor Swift’s Instagram feed: warm woolen mittens, cream-colored ponies, silver-white winters that melt into springs. If she’d only had access to a ukelele, you’d best believe she would have played it.
But all this is just window-dressing compared to Maria’s most defining moment of MPDGness: the way in which she transforms the lives of Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his seven infinitely tricky children. From headstrong Liesl to incorrigible Kurt, Maria breaks the children using a lethal combination of reverse psychology and mnemonics, thanking them at the dinner table for the “precious gift” they left in her pocket to welcome her to her new home (a toad), and reducing them all to floods of penitent tears. Wearing down the Captain is a bit trickier, and unfortunately involves disposing of his charming and tart-tongued fiancee, the Baroness von Schraeder, whose defining characteristics are that she dislikes children but loves manipulative behavior and pink lemonade. But the genius of Manic Pixie Maria is that Baroness Elsa practically does the job for her: When Maria returns to the Abbey after Elsa points out Maria’s ungoverness-like feelings for the handsome Captain, it precipitates Georg’s realization that he loves the guileless nun-in-training, not the calculating Vienna socialite. If only all romantic triangles were so easily resolved.