Mary Poppins Returns: ‘No one can impersonate Julie Andrews so why would you bother trying’
Mary Poppins Returns actors Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Rob Marshall on taking on a Disney classic
In a market dominated by brand recognition, long-awaited sequels have become rather commonplace. Fans of 1980s originals had to wait 23 years for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, 26 years for Tron: Legacy, and 34 years for Blade Runner 2049. None of these hiatuses can match Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel that has been 54 years in the making.
When Mary Poppins sailed into cinemas on an umbrella in 1964, it became the most popular film Walt Disney ever produced. With the sizeable profits, he was able to purchase land and commence building his second theme park in Florida. Following much critical acclaim and 13 Academy Award nominations, he was keen to rush a sequel through.
However, as recorded – albeit with a spoonful of sugar – in the drama Saving Mr Banks, relations between Disney and PL Travers, the English author of the Mary Poppins books, were fractious at best.
If I was going to take Mary Poppins on I had to do it my own way or not bother doing it at all.
Her visit to the Burbank production was memorable: “I find myself getting angry when I relive it,” said songwriter Richard Sherman, years later. Travers was a fascinating and scholarly woman who grew up in Australia with her Irish family, before returning to London where various luminaries associated with the Celtic Twilight mentored her.
She demanded script approval on Disney’s film, vetoed a romance between Mary and Bert the chimney sweep, but reluctantly agreed to animation and musical numbers. Still, she was upset by the premiere, an event Disney did not want the author to attend, and promptly wrote to her lawyer: “As chalk is to cheese, so is the film to the book. Tears ran down my cheeks because it was all so distorted. I was so shocked I felt that I would never write – let alone smile – again!”
During the 1980s, Walt Disney Studios president Jeffrey Katzenberg and vice-president Martin Kaplan approached Travers with the idea of an older Julie Andrews returning to straighten out her now adult charges from the original film. Travers was not amused.
It was only after her death in 1996 that the studio was able to negotiate with her estate, firstly for full approval on Saving Mr Banks, and then for a new Poppins film. By 2015, the project fell to director Rob Marshall as he was finishing work on the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
“Of course it was daunting,” says Marshall. “The first film is so beloved and wonderful. But I did feel that if anybody was going to do it then I wanted to be that one person because I love the first film so much – maybe because it was the first film I saw as a child – and I wanted to try and protect the spirit of the first film, and that feeling of childlike wonder.”
He had a shortlist of one to step into the eminently sensible shoes once worn by Julie Andrews: Emily Blunt, who had been so impressive in Into the Woods. There was a small complication.
“I was hoping to get pregnant with my second child,” says Blunt. “I think Rob Marshall and John [Krasinski, her husband] were the only people who knew I wanted another baby. When he called it was an instantaneous yes. That was the but. The good news was he was only breaking the story on it and musicals take an epically long time to craft.”
Blunt studiously avoided the original film. Indeed, she hasn’t watched it in 28 years. Instead, she returned to the original books and found unlikely inspiration in a classic screwball comedy and a certain royal rebel.
“No one can impersonate Julie Andrews so why would you even bother trying?” says Blunt. “It was an impossible feat. If I was going to take Mary Poppins on I had to do it my own way or not bother doing it at all. I found the books to be a huge source of inspiration for me. She is rather different in the books: she’s very eccentric and rude and vain and funny and sort of unknowable.
“I came up with the accent myself. I was inspired by, even though she’s not British, the speed and cadence that Rosalind Russell spoke in His Girl Friday and the way that she comes in like a tornado. I thought she should speak with great clarity and she is rather imperious and thinks she’s better than everybody. So I also thought about Princess Margaret.”
“It’s too impossible to follow Julie Andrews,” adds Marshall. “So what you do is you look to the character. I guess that’s the way the James Bond actors must do it. I mean you can’t be Sean Connery.”
Mary Poppins Returns rejoins the Banks family in Depression-era London, more than 20 years after the events of the first movie. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer are the now-grown Banks children Michael and Jane, who are still reeling from the loss of Michael’s wife and struggling with his general domestic hopelessness.
When the family home is threatened with repossession, Mary Poppins returns via the medium of enchanted umbrella. She’s joined by Jack (played by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), a cockney lamplighter and an apprentice of Bert, Dick Van Dyke’s character from the original film.
Both Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury cameo in Mary Poppins Returns; Julie Andrews politely declined a role, saying the film should be Emily’s show. “I thought it was terribly gracious of her,” says Blunt. “I would have loved for her to be in it but I completely understand and appreciate and respect her not being in it.”
Inevitably, Van Dyke’s dance number and Lansbury’s turn as a balloon seller turn out to the most charming scenes in the movie.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” gushes Lin-Manuel Miranda, “It’s crazy even sharing a make-up trailer with Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury. I think you can see in the scene with Dick Van Dyke – and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s in the trailer – how much all of us turned into little kids again at that moment where he dances.
"And if you want a summary of the greatest hits of musical history you just need to look at Angela Lansbury’s resumé. I remember being a little mortified, but not that mortified, playing Sweeney Todd in the makeup trailer. As she walked in I was literally listening to her singing The Worst Pies in London. What I love about this movie is that you actually hear her before you see her. That voice is so iconic.”
The London press day for Mary Poppins Returns is dominated by fan worship. Everyone involved is keen to express their respect and admiration for the 1963 film. Marshall insists that loving the original film was a requirement when casting. Ben Whishaw says Mary Poppins is the reason he became an actor. “It was my favourite film as a child,” says Whishaw. “I loved that the universe that PL Travers and Walt Disney created was so bonkers. Even small things like the mad over-the-top housekeepers and the admiral who fires a cannon on the hour. It’s a chaotic world where everyone is eccentric. And none of it is ever explained.”
Can you imagine a version of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! that is better than the original?
“I didn’t see the end of Mary Poppins until high school. I couldn’t get past Feed the Birds,” says Miranda. “That song is so sad and the melody is so beautiful. Years later when I saw Saving Mr Banks I learned that it was Walt Disney’s favourite song and he would have the Sherman Brothers play it for him in the office. That was his way to decompress. It was just the most haunting melody I ever heard and I just cried and I had to turn off the VHS video cassette every time. And then seeing Les Miserables at seven made me realise from a very early age that music had an enormous power to move me and stay with me.”
Everyone is keen to stress that the film is a continuation rather than a remake or reboot. “The good news is that we’re not removing the original Mary Poppins from anyone’s shelf,” says Miranda. “If it was a remake I probably would not have said yes. Can you imagine a version of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! that is better than the original?”
“This is a character that has a lot of resonance and I was excited to bring her back,” says Marshall. “This is a moment when everybody feels a little unsure, when people are struggling to keep their homes and there’s a fragility to the whole world. We need the joy and magic of this character. We’ve seen lots of Winnie the Poohs. We’ve seen lots of Star Wars. So why not Mary Poppins?”
Mary Poppins Returns opens on December 21st