Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” had its first public screening for SAG members Saturday night at Fox, and Emily Blunt portrays the iconic nanny with such confidence and charm that she could land a Best Actress Oscar nomination. No easy feat since Julie Andrews won the Oscar with the role in 1965 and charmed the world with a performance that was “practically perfect in every way.”
The Rob Marshall-directed musical should also be very competitive in several craft races, including John Myhre’s production design, Sandy Powell’s costume design, Marc Shaiman’s score, Best Song, VFX, and sound editing and mixing.
“There is no one else on this planet who could play this part,” Marshall said during the post screening Q&A, where he appeared on a panel with Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda (as lamplighter Jack), producers John DeLuca and Marc Platt, and Myhre. “I wanted to honor that beautiful, first film but also create something completely original, and I’d never done an original musical before for film, so it was a fine line.”
Going back to Depression-era London of P.L. Travers’ original books (with a script by “Finding Neverland” screenwriter David Magee), Poppins returns to Cherry Tree Lane to again rescue the Banks family from emotional turmoil. Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), are now grown up, with widower Michael living with three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson).
“You feel the Depression in the first book even though it’s very episodic and it’s all adventures, basically,” Marshall said. “The first film was set in 1910, which was a much more innocent time. Somehow, in the ’30s, in that much darker time of struggle, it’s much more current.”
For Blunt, it was a matter of overcoming the white noise of intimidation and discovering her own vision of Poppins as a traveling angel through the books. “She’s the most delicious person I’ve ever played,” she said. “And she’s so eccentric in the books, incredibly rude, obviously, and funny. And thinks she’s amazing, which she is. The beauty of her is the enigmatic master plan that she’s has and always had…and she’s wonderfully empathetic, even though she doesn’t appear that way. And she takes zero credit…she makes it a voyage of self-discovery.”
The reboot follows the template of the original, with showstopping musical numbers (“Tripping the Light Fantastic” and “The Cover is Not the Book”) and wistful ballads (“The Place Where Lost Things Go,” “Lovely London Sky”) written by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. There’s even a hand-drawn animated sequence featuring the return of the penguins.
“It didn’t feel hard because we practiced them so much,” said Miranda, who took a nasty spill on the first day of shooting the “Lovely London Sky. “‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic,’ on that fountain, we ran that as if we were doing a Broadway number. That was an eight-minute, continuous number, and didn’t stop between each dance move on that thing. But we ran it and ran it until it was second nature to us.”
For Myhre, the challenge of creating a real world and multiple fantasy worlds was heightened by a greater sense of authenticity for London. “Rob said this film needs to be dipped in reality and I remembered that every day,” he said. “So I went to London and I was going through with all the British location people, and I kept going, ‘This is good, but it’s not London-y enough.’ So we created a word, ‘London-y,’ and every single day, I went to my art department, I went to the prop people, I went to the sculptors, the painters, and I said it needs to be a little more London-y.”
However, for Marshall, the biggest driving force of “Mary Poppins Returns” was making it resonate today. “One of the things that was important for me, and I think for everyone involved, was it felt like a movie that we needed now,” he said. “And we all got on that train. That’s why Meryl Streep [as eccentric cousin Topsy] said yes immediately, Colin Firth [as the bank manager] said yes. These people wanted to be part of sending that message to the world now of hope.”