How 'Mary Poppins Returns' reinvents the beloved nanny for the 21st century

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda in this new look at Mary Poppins Returns (Disney)

This Christmas there’s a new Mary Poppins on screen in Mary Poppins Returns.

Emily Blunt is stepping into the shoes of Julie Andrews in the sequel who – no pressure – won the Best Actress Oscar for the 1964 original.

There’s already Oscar buzz surrounding Blunt’s performance, but back in 2017 when Yahoo visited Shepperton Studios to see the film being made, awards glory was far from everyone’s mind.

The cast and crew were all focussed on reinventing the beloved P.L. Travers character for the 21st century.

From the principal filmmakers we found out how Poppins is being updated for Mary Poppins Returns from the ground (well, the shoes at least) up.

Mary’s unseen legacy

Emily Blunt receives instructions from director Rob Marshall on the set of Mary Poppins Returns. (Disney)

British author P.L. Travers published eight Mary Poppins books between 1934 and 1988. The original 1964 Mary Poppins adapted the stories from the first four books into one feature-length film, with input from Travers who demanded script approval (see Saving Mr Banks for that story), leaving four books still to be adapted.

Director Rob Marshall says Disney tried to adapt the other stories for a sequel in the 1980s, but faced pushback from the author, who eventually passed away in 1996, aged 96.

“P.L. Travers wrote eight books throughout the course of her life, so there was so much material,” explains Marshall. “And I know that in the ‘80s for instance, when Jeffrey Katzenberg was at Disney, I know they explored the possibility of doing a sequel, and why wouldn’t you, especially with all of this material? But, as we famously know, P.L. Travers was very protective of the material so it was always very difficult to try and make happen.”

This image released by Disney shows Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers in a scene from “Saving Mr. Banks.” (AP Photo/Disney, François Duhamel)

A remake was out of the question, so the logical decision was to turn to the other books for inspiration for a sequel.

“What we found in her books was really a treasure trove of new characters and episodes,” producer Marc Platt told us. “And we realised that we could bring the sequel, our own version and our own story, a original story of Mary Poppins all these years later in a very exciting way, but that we could draw upon the original source.”

“In addition to working with all the new material, the new adventures from PL Travers,” adds Marshall, “we actually set the film in the era when the books were originally written, which is in the ‘30s, London’s depression era.”

David Magee, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind Life of Pi and Finding Neverland, was then brought in to give life to this new Poppins adventure.

There’s something about Mary

The filmmakers insist they only had one name in mind to play the title role: Emily Blunt. Marshall and Platt “fell in love” with the 35-year-old Brit on another Disney musical, 2014’s Into The Woods, and they both instinctively knew she would be a practically perfect as Poppins.

“There’s quite a list of things you must be able to do to play Mary Poppins,” says Marshall. “You need to be a great actor, but there’s also a humanity in the character.”

“Underneath there has to be a warmth and an accessibility and joy and humour, so it was so important to find an actor who could do those things. But she also needed to sing and dance, which is very rare these days. And I thought it was important that she be British because it’s such an iconic British character.”

“What [Emily] does with the role is what we’re trying to do with the film throughout, which is have a foot in the original source, a nod to it, if you will,” adds Platt. “Sort of realise the tropes of the original, but move it forward into a contemporary sense of storytelling and tell the story our way with our personality, our sensibilities.”

Emily Blunt was hand-picked to play P.L. Travers’ iconic character (Disney)

Mary’s return is precipitated once again by the Banks children: Jane and Michael. Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw play the siblings as adults, and just like the original, Mary is needed to bring some magic into their lives: something we could all do in these turbulent times.

“What you realise is that the magic, the hope, the optimism, the connectivity that Mary Poppins brings as a character to the family, and the world around her, is really what I think people are yearning for in their lives,” says Platt.

“I do remember [the original film] very fondly and took such a great comfort in it as a child,” adds Blunt. “That was something that struck me of that person coming in and so capable and so magical, and just sweeping it all up and making it right. I took a lot of comfort in that as a child, so I think we are trying to, obviously, continue that now too with our film.”

Top of the Poppins

Costume designer Sandy Powell arrives at the UK Premiere of The Favourite during the London Film Festival, in London, Britain October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

With the story and Blunt in place, Disney set about framing Mary in the best way possible with Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell – who previously dressed the star in Young Victoria – hired to update the nanny’s iconic wardrobe.

Powell told us she rewatched the original just once as a refresher, before leaping into all new designs “because the idea wasn’t to go and copy anything specifically, but I think we needed to maintain the essence of the look of Mary Poppins.”

“The first thing to think about, and probably the most daunting task, was what Mary’s arrival outfit is, as it’s the look that we’re going to remember her for,” shared Powell. “So, thinking back to the original and what you notice most about the original look is the silhouette because that’s what we all remember seeing is that little silhouette of her coming down with the umbrella.”

“The coat was just above the ankle, sort of nipped-in at the waist with a hat and an umbrella. So I wanted to do something similar.”

Emily Blunt in her Mary Poppins entrance costume, which was one of the first images released from the film (Disney)

The costumes we’ve seen so far in the trailers are all instantly Poppins, albeit a bit brighter than we saw her wear in the original.

“The colour – blue – is stronger than it probably would have been for a real governess and brighter than the original, which is navy. I didn’t want to do navy because it’s too hard and actually reads on camera as black,” explains Powell.

“The hat is a typical 1930s shape with a brim and it’s not a million miles away from the original. I thought [red] would be a sort of interesting new take on Mary Poppins, a little less rigid.”

Although Poppins has many costume changes, Powell says she only has two pairs of shoes, but like the rest of her costume, they’re exquisitely detailed.

“The shoes are really important because I’m assuming the shoes are going to be the first thing we see when she arrives. I think there’s a moment in the scene with Topsy (Meryl Streep) where there’s actually reference to shoes and we get a close-up of the shoes. And then all the dance numbers, we’ll be seeing the feet.”

Alongside Mary’s regular costumes, Powell had to design costumes for the animated sequences too – including ones for the animated animals – that were made to look like they had been hand drawn “to make them sort of fit with the animated world rather than look like they’d been plunked on top of it.”

Summing up Mary Poppins Returns Platt said “The film has magic in it, it kind of has everything we’d want from a great big family entertainment: Music, original music. Dance. Laughter. Magic. Animation.

“It will entertain people. It will make people laugh. It will be joyful and it will make people cry.”

We are ready, and so are our hankies, for when Mary Poppins Returns to cinemas on 21 December.

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