[INTERVIEW] ‘MARY POPPINS RETURNS’ right on time – and when we need her the most

Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda in MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Mary Poppins is the nanny we all need right now – someone whose unconventional way of thinking will illuminate the path in life’s darkness. She comforts us in our time of desperate need. Her specific brand of making “the medicine go down” is “practically perfect in every way.” And it’s for those reasons the sequel to her classic 1964 film, MARY POPPINS RETURNS, is such a warmly welcomed sequel for our current times.

Taking place in the time of “the great slump” (as the title card reads), the highly anticipated next chapter shows Banks siblings Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) all grown up and fighting to save their childhood home from bank repossession. As they look for the critical evidence to prove they have the funds tucked away in safe keeping at the very same bank that holds the deed to their home, Mary Poppins returns to help guide Michael’s young children – John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) – through grief over losing their mother and potentially losing their home.

Director Rob Marshall felt this sequel came at the perfect time not just in terms of his career, being able to launch an original musical, but also in terms of our current world dynamics. At the recent Los Angeles press conference, the talented auteur stated,

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. It feels so current to me. I certainly knew that I wanted to live in that world, and be part of that, sending that message out into the world now of looking for hope and light in a dark time. That’s why we set our film in the Depression Era in London – the time of the books. It was really so it could feel accessible and feel like it’s a story that needs to be told now.  

Fifty four years after the original was released, the iconic legacy of the titular character continues to reverberate in our pop culture. It carries a certain weight – one star Emily Blunt wasn’t immune to feeling daunted by when she was approached to carry on the role Julie Andrews originated.

When [Rob Marshall] said “Mary Poppins,” I thought like the air changed in the room. It was such an extraordinary 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 such a big imprint on my life and on everyone’s lives. People hold this character so close to their hearts.

So how do I create my version of her? What will my version of her be? No one wants to see me do a sort of cheap impersonation of Julie Andrews because no one is Julie Andrews. She should be preserved and treasured in her own way of what she did. I knew this was going to be something that I wanted to take a big swing with and I knew I could do it with this man who is the most emboldening, meticulous, brilliant director in the world. I was in safe hands with him. However, much I knew I had my work cut out for me. 

P.L.Travers’ books were Blunt’s “springboard” as to how to approach her own iteration of Ms. Poppins.

She leaped off the page at me just in how complicated she is, how unknowable she is in this wonderful way, that duality of the character. That she is stern and she is incredibly rude and vain, but like funny. And yet there is this humanity and she has to herself have such a childlike wonder in her in order to want to infuse these children’s lives with it and there must under there be a generosity of spirit to want to fix and heal in the way that she does. 

For me, and certainly for Rob, we both wanted to find those layers and those moments of humanity so she’s not just one thing, because she is so enigmatic. Also the fact that she’s probably a bit of an adrenaline junkie – like she loves these adventures. It’s like her outlet.

It was a sense of awe and wonder that drew Lin-Manuel Miranda to the part of lovely London leerie Jack.

They pitched him to me [as having] this childlike sense of wonder. He’s in touch with that imagination you all see in your kids when they can sort of play in their own imagination for hours. Jack sort of never lost that and that was I feel so humbled that [Rob Marshall] saw that in me.

The dynamic duo even have a flirty relationship with each other – similar to Burt (Dick Van Dyke) and Mary’s in the original. Miranda professed,

Everyone who was like, “Wow there’s rapping in MARY POPPINS RETURNS,” forgets that Burt has a 30 second rap about all the women he dated before Mary.  You’ve all forgotten it, but “Jolly Holiday” is one big flirt between Mary and Burt. 

Blunt followed up,

I enjoyed playing the sort of flirtation of it and I think really they are such kindred spirits even though he’s not necessary magical, he gets it and believes it and they’re sort of in cahoots with each other so I love playing that chemistry with Lin and I was so lucky to get to play it with him because he’s such a wonderful bounce back and forth, you know, and such – there’s such  buoyancy to him and how he plays his character. 

The always quick-witted Manuel added,

We look forward to all the fan fiction in either direction.

Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies., Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson in Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Sprinkled throughout the sequel are subtle nods to the original – everything from chalk drawings, to the sash Mrs. Banks wears, to the tonality of the songs. Marshall said they had formed their own checks and balances to make sure they weren’t relying too heavily on those callbacks.

It was the balancing act. 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. There were sort of 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, our own story, setting it in the ‘30s helped.

It was constantly back and forth. Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman]were incredibly careful about making sure that we didn’t abuse using themes from the first film. It’s so easy to use. We used it in very strategic places throughout the film. Most of it actually very much at the end where we feel we’d earned it by then. The whole time it was that, but I did feel that we were coming from the right place – and that was the key.

Not only does the film include those nostalgia cues, there are also a few cameos from the original’s actors. The original Jane Banks, actress Karen Dotrice, makes a short appearance in the sequel as a passerby asking the new Michael Banks, for directions. Emily Mortimer said,

We [shot] it so that we all walked on to the set for the first time with her. She walked on to Cherry Tree Lane for the first time in 54 years and she just melted. I mean she just sort of crumbled. That was so moving being there with her while that happened and seeing that.

Being that this sequel falls in line with the grand traditions of the original’s spectacular musical numbers, there’s also a weep-inducing song on the soundtrack: “Where the Lost Things Go.” In fact, it was such a poignantly moving and well-written song that it made Blunt lose it from the very first moment.

I found it virtually impossible to get through it the first few times I sang it.  It was so emotional for me because I did think of my own children and these children in the film and their sense of loss and that they’re trying to hold their father together and they’ve dealt with something so profound and so agonizing. To lose a parent and to be so young and miss her so much and oh my god, I like cried thinking about it. 

It was one of my favorite days on set and we shot that song all day, in a couple of days. She recognizes what they need in that moment and gives it to them in this very tender way. The sorrow is so true and she doesn’t shy away from the fact that they’ve lost something, but that there’s cracks of light. There’s something to learn from and the idea of loss being something that they can digest as children and that you are going to walk through this loss, but nothing is gone forever, only out of place. It’s just such a hopeful way to look at loss really. 

MARY POPPINS RETURNS opens on December 19. 

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