This article about “Mary Poppins Returns” first appeared in the TheWrap magazine’s Oscar Nominations Preview issue.
Mary Poppins was a part of all their childhoods. Rob Marshall remembered it as the first movie he ever saw in a theater, the one that would give the future director of Chicago and Into the Woods a lasting love for musicals. Emily Blunt recalled seeing it at the age of 5 or 6 and feeling “in safe hands” with Julie Andrews’ “practically perfect” nanny. Emily Mortimer said she watched it on BBC2 nearly every holiday. Lin-Manuel Miranda had it in one of those oversize Disney VHS boxes — but he never watched it all the way through, turning it off when “Feed the Birds” came on because the song was too sad for him to endure. “I didn’t see the end of the movie until I was in high school and could survive the musical trauma,” he said.
And Ben Whishaw said that it was the first film he ever saw, and one that consumed him. “I just watched it obsessively over and over again, rewound bits, learned all the songs,” he said. “I dressed up as her. I wanted to be her.” Mortimer, who plays the sister to Whishaw’s character in the new “Mary Poppins Returns,” laughed at this. “The first dinner we ever had, he showed me a photograph of him dressed as Mary Poppins,” she said. “It was the sweetest thing.”
“I was, like, 3, and I paraded up and down our street,” Whishaw added. “In my childhood memories, ‘Mary Poppins’ is mythically massive.”
And now there’s a new Mary Poppins movie, courtesy of Marshall, Blunt, Miranda, Mortimer, Whishaw and a great many others. All of them, from Marshall to his actors to songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, were intimidated by the thought of following the 1964 Disney classic, which landed 13 Oscar nominations and won five, including awards for Andrews and for the song “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
“I was immediately daunted by the reality of it,” Marshall said. “But then I thought to myself, ‘If anybody’s going to do it, I want to be the one,’ because I knew how much the first film means to me. I wanted to protect that film and treat it with great care and attention to detail. For example, I didn’t want Mary Poppins to break into a contemporary song like ‘Let It Go’ or something like that, which could easily have happened. And so as scared as I was and as much as I knew how high the bar is, I wanted to invest myself in what I knew would be an incredibly long and complicated and difficult film to make.”
So he called Blunt, whom he had directed in the 2014 movie version of “Into the Woods,” and whom he thought was “the only actress” who could play the role. She said yes immediately before getting nervous. “I was like, ‘I get to do my version of Mary Poppins,'” she said. “And then I was like, ‘But everyone loves this other version of Mary Poppins!’ Never have I felt, ‘How am I going to carve out new space for myself?’ more than I did on this project.”
Marshall set “Mary Poppins Returns” about 24 years after the original film, moving it from 1910 into the 1930s, when the original P.L. Travers books are set. But Michael and Jane Banks, the children that the stern but magical nanny Mary Poppins looks after, never age in the books, and Marshall changed that. “I wanted to set it after Michael and Jane have grown up,” he said. “And I felt that the Depression era feels so accessible, somehow. Struggling to make ends meet, dealing with and looking for hope in a darker time — what guided me through the process of making this film was the idea of sending a message of hope today, in this current climate. I thought Mary Poppins coming back can bring that injection of hope into people’s lives.”
For Blunt, the challenge was not only following Julie Andrews’ indelible performance, but finding the shades in a character who on the surface is not particularly nice. “That’s the delight of playing her,” she said. “When I dove into the books, I saw a duality that I was struck by and excited by. She’s fastidious and completely eccentric, and she’s grounded and yet airborne and practical and magical and stern and yet has great depth. She is someone who commands the environment she’s in but yet pretends not to. And I think that idea of how deeply she connects with people in their pain and yet holds them at arm’s length at the same time was so delightful to play.
“I talked to Rob a lot about what she really feels when she goes on these adventures. And I think it should be that she’s like an adrenaline junkie. I said to Rob, ‘It’s got to be like heroin for her.’ She loves and she needs these adventures — that’s the child in her, that’s why you see her complete determination to infuse childlike wonder into people’s lives again.”
While Blunt’s Mary Poppins has scarcely aged since the first film, Lin-Manuel Miranda steps into the role of Mary’s new sidekick. In the original, Dick Van Dyke played a chimney sweep (among other things) named Bert, but Miranda is Jack, a lamplighter with a similar devotion to Mary and her magical ways. And the fact that a “Puerto Rican dude” (albeit the Puerto Rican dude who created “Hamilton”) could be dropped into a movie set in 1930s London without a thought was not lost on him. “It feels significant, the same way it felt significant to me when I saw Raul Julia play Gomez Adams in ‘The Addams Family,'” he said. “That character was not a Latin guy in the original series I saw growing up on Nick at Night. Or seeing Rita Moreno on ‘The Electric Company’ when I was a kid. We’re not only playing the quote-unquote Latino roles, but also just playing great roles where race is just a part of it. It’s a step forward, I think, for representation.”
Given the film’s elaborate dance numbers and its 15-minute sequence blending live action with hand-drawn animation, Marshall knew “Mary Poppins Returns” would require meticulous planning. So he set a two-month rehearsal period, far more than usual. (“‘Hamilton’ didn’t have two months of rehearsal,” said Miranda.) And not only did he block and practice the dance routines, he reminded the cast that for a musical to work, the drama and the songs had to be seamless. “I think we were rehearsing the scene of Mary Poppins’ arrival,” Mortimer said, “and Rob kept saying, ‘You’re still in a musical even though you’re not singing and dancing.’ That was such a good note. Like, you’ve still got to keep the ball in the air, otherwise it could go flat between the songs. That was immediately the key to performing in those scenes.”
But the cast was also reminded of the spirit they were trying to achieve when a special guest came to play a small but crucial role: Dick Van Dyke, whose appearance was “a sob fest for everyone” on the set, according to Blunt. “It was so gorgeous to be around him, and he’s so sprightly and full of life and energy and sparkle,” she said. “I mean, Lin and I were there to assist him onto the desk where he’s supposed to do a tap dance, and he just waved us away and didn’t need any help. I don’t think Rob could even say cut, he was so emotional.”
Blunt’s guess about his emotional state, Marshall said, is entirely accurate. “She’s right. He is one of my heroes, and he did a beautiful monologue where he talks about Michael as a young boy and the tuppence and all of that. So there he is, Dick Van Dyke, and he’s 91 years old [at the time], and he’s talking about things from the first film and doing it so beautifully. I have ‘Feed the Birds’ in my ear, which we use as underscore. And so I’m hearing ‘Feed the Birds,’ I’m seeing Dick Van Dyke deliver this extraordinary speech, and I just lost it. Emily heard me not say cut and she knew. I couldn’t speak, it was so moving to me.”
That day, Blunt added, also gave her one of her peak “Mary Poppins Returns” moments, right up there with the sequence where she floats back into the Banks’ lives on a kite. “We all just sat around Dick Van Dyke and wanted him to tell us stories of his whole career,” she said. “Which he did, and he’d break into song all the time. It was just so terribly moving. And there was a weird moment when he finished the monologue and gave the Banks family their house back. He just sort of looked up at me with those blue eyes, and I thought, ‘Holy s—, I’m Mary Poppins!'”
To read more of the Oscars Nomination Preview issue, click here.