Opening today (December 19) in theaters is Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the classic 1964 Disney film that starred Julie Andrews (in her Oscar-winning feature film debut) as the magical and stern nanny who comes out of the sky to help with the Banks children of Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The original film is considered one of the Mouse House’s all-time masterpieces, which is perhaps why it took more than 50 years to make a sequel despite the fact that Mary’s creator, P.L. Travers, wrote a total of eight books starring her famous creation (Travers was also reportedly against any more movies after the first one, which might have been an issue as well).
Mary Poppins Returns is not based specifically on any of the succeeding books but tells an original story in which Mary, now played by Emily Blunt, returns to help the now-grown Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) as they navigate through adulthood and all its attendant problems in Depression-era London. Mary is placed in charge of the widowed Michael’s three children, aided by lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), as she takes the kids on a series of dazzling adventures and helps save the family from the brink of losing their home and their love for each other.
Mary Poppins Returns is directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods), a filmmaker and choreographer whose background in theater has made him especially suited to bringing full-blown musicals to the screen. Yet Mary Poppins Returns, because of the pedigree of the original, the iconic performance by Andrews, and the still-memorable score, was particularly challenging, as Marshall, Blunt, Miranda, Mortimer, Whishaw, producers John DeLuca and Marc Platt and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman discussed at a press conference for the film in Los Angeles.
“What I thought to myself, when this came my way, was that, if anybody is going to do it, I would like to do it,” said Marshall about his decision to direct the film. “It was incredibly daunting, at first, of course, but at the same time, I really felt like I have that film, as many of us do, in my blood, and I wanted to be able to, in an odd way, protect the first film, and treat this film with great care and love. Musicals are very difficult to do. There are so many layers to it. Creating an original musical from scratch was actually a dream for me. I’ve never done it before, and to be able to create it with this beautiful company was exactly what I was hoping for.”
Blunt had a similar reaction when she was first tipped off by her agent that “something big” was about to come her way. She recalled getting a phone call from Marshall about the project, remarking, “It was such an extraordinary and rather unparalleled moment for me, because I was filled with an instantaneous yes, but also with some trepidation, all happening simultaneously, in that moment, because she is so iconic.
“She had made such a big imprint on my life, and on everyone’s lives,” Blunt continued. “People hold this character so close to their hearts, so I thought, ‘How do I create my version of her? What will my version of her be? No one wants to see me do a cheap impersonation of Julie Andrews because no one is Julie Andrews. She should be preserved and treasured, in her own way, for what she did.’ And so I knew that this was going to be something that I wanted to take a big swing with, and I knew that I could do it with (Marshall), who is the most emboldening, meticulous, brilliant director in the world. I was in safe hands with him, however much I knew that I had my work cut out for me.”
For Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for the groundbreaking Broadway musical Hamilton, Mary Poppins Returns represents his first lead role in a major motion picture (after working extensively in theater and TV, with a few smaller film parts) and his chance to bring his considerable singing and dancing skills to the big screen.
“Honestly, I can’t give (Marshall and producer John DeLuca) enough credit for seeing this role in me,” said the actor and composer, who was still starring in Hamilton when the pair came to meet with him. “Jack, in this movie, as they pitched him to me, has this childlike sense of wonder and he’s in touch with that imagination that you see in your kids, when they can play in their own imagination for hours. Jack never lost that. I feel so humbled that Rob saw that in me, and from that moment, I was in. It came along at the perfect time for my family, too. We had finished a year of performing Hamilton, and then I chopped my hair off and left the country, and jumped into Mary Poppins’ universe.”
It’s implied in the film that Miranda’s character was a protégé of Bert, the chimney sweep and street artist — and close friend of Mary — played unforgettably in the original movie by the legendary Dick Van Dyke. The 93-year-old actor also appears in Mary Poppins Returns, in a different role (although one related to the first movie as well), and Marshall described what it was like having him on set. “Every one of us was there, and it was beyond,” he remembered. “I don’t think any of us could even breathe that day because we couldn’t believe that we were touching that…He grabbed my hand, as we walked onto the set, and he turned to me and said something that I will never forget. He said, ‘I feel the same spirit here, on this set, that I did on the first film.’ That was the dream come true, right there.”
Also making a cameo in the film is Karen Dotrice, who played Jane Banks as a little girl in the 1964 movie. Emily Mortimer, who plays the character as a grown woman, recalled the day that Dotrice came to the set. “It was extraordinary. She’s such a great, cool lady, so funny, wicked sense of humor, really down to earth and ballsy,” Mortimer said. ‘We all walked onto the set for the first time with her and she walked onto Cherry Tree Lane for the first time in 54 years or however long it has been since the first movie was made and she just melted. She just sort of crumbled, and that was so moving being there with her while that happened and seeing that.”
Marshall explained that he and the entire production worked hard to make a film that echoed the original while establishing its own narrative path. “It was the balancing act of the whole film, the entire time,” the director explained. “I really felt that everyone who was a part of this needed to have the first film in their blood, in some way, because that’s what we were following. We were looking for that balance throughout the entire time that we were working on this film. I used myself as a barometer and thought, what would I want to see?
“If I came to a sequel to Mary Poppins, I knew that I would want to see an animation sequence with live action, and I would want it to be hand-drawn in a 2D world,” he continued. “I would want Cherry Tree Lane to have a curve to it because that’s the Cherry Tree Lane we all know. It was as simple as that, although we were finding our new way. There were goal posts, or sign posts, throughout that we needed to hold onto because it’s in the DNA of the material…It was this insane balancing act of honoring the first film, but at the same time, forging our own way with our own story.”
Blunt spoke about the similar challenge she faced in making the character of Mary her own while honoring the indelible job done by Julie Andrews: “I found the books to be a huge springboard and enormously helpful,” revealed Blunt. “She leapt off the page at me, just in how complicated she is and how unknowable she is, in this wonderful way, with that duality of the character. She is stern and incredibly rude and vain, but funny, and yet there’s this humanity, and she has such a childlike wonder in her, in order to want to infuse these children’s lives with it. There is a generosity of spirit, and a desire to want to fix and heal in the way that she does.
“Even though I’d seen (the original) as a child, I decided to not watch it so close to shooting our version,” Blunt added. “She is so beautiful and so extraordinary, and I didn’t want to let that bleed into what I wanted to do. I just decided that, if I’m going to do this, I’m just going to go on my gut instinct from the books because she is rather different in all of the books. If I was going to carve out new space for myself, it was going to have to be without watching the details of what Julie did.”
With audiences now able to experience Blunt’s truly delightful performance in the film, as well as the work by the rest of the cast, the gorgeous production design and the overall wistful and nostalgic tone, Marshall said that he hoped the movie’s core theme would shine through as well. “The guiding message of this film, about finding light in the darkness, is honestly what drew me to it, and kept guiding me throughout the whole process,” said the director. “I feel like people need this film now. I certainly knew that I wanted to live in that world, and send that message out into the world, of looking for hope and light in a dark time…it’s a story that needs to be told now.”
Mary Poppins Returns is out in theaters today (December 19).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye