After Mary Poppins was released in 1964 and took the world by storm with its songs and the charm of its starring cast, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, talks began of making a sequel. Little did the filmmakers know what was in store for them.
Fifty-four years later, Mary Poppins Returns premiered in December 2018, starring Emily Blunt as the blithe governess bringing order to chaos in a household of young children. It has set the record as the longest gap between a live-action film and its sequel.
“It’s about time,” wrote the reviewer in The New Yorker. “Some of us have been waiting all our lives, but, at last, she’s back.”
The character of Mary Poppins was created by P. L. Travers, who wrote eight children’s books about the magical nanny between 1934 and 1988. Travers, an Australian English writer, had very strong opinions on film adaptations of her work.
It took Walt Disney 20 years to secure the rights for the original musical, and she agreed only because she needed the money.
Disney paid the author $100,000 and 5 percent of gross earnings, and agreed to a script approval.
However, when she was shown the first script of the musical Mary Poppins, she didn’t like it, and she wasn’t shy about letting anyone know
“She didn’t care about our feelings, how she chopped us apart,” songwriter Richard Sherman told the New York Times in 2013. And Walt Disney was just as difficult. “He’d kill you if you said you didn’t like something,” Sherman said. “He’d say, ‘If you can’t think of something to improve it, then keep your mouth shut.’ ”
At the 1964 premiere, Travers wept tears of frustration. Afterward she tried to give Walt Disney her changes for the script, and he said, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”
The film was such a huge success that talk of a sequel began immediately. Travers, however, successfully killed that project.
In the late 1980s, Disney attempted to work out a sequel with Travers again, discussing storyline and casting. But these discussions failed as well, and the author died in 1996.
In 2015 the present film went into development, having received the green light from Travers’ estate.
Mary Poppins Returns was directed by Rob Marshall, who is best known for Chicago and Into the Woods.
The first film took place before World War One. The story has moved to the 1930s, with grownup Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) living in the old house, but with challenges to deal with.
In the film, little Georgie Banks (Joel Dawson) goes to a park, chasing an old kite carried away by the wind. He grabs the string, and the string pulls him. Before he can be swept off, he is brought down to earth by Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a friendly lamp lighter.
Together they reel in Mary Poppins, played by Blunt. “I was flying a kite and it got caught on a nanny!” Georgie declares.
Among the cast is Meryl Streep, playing Topsy, Mary’s eccentric, enthusiastic cousin who exists in her own world of upside-downs and opposites.
The part of the balloon lady went to Angela Lansbury, 93, who had been considered for the role of Mary Poppins before Julie Andrews was cast.
Dick Van Dyke makes a cameo, performing a dance number. But Julie Andrews, while offered the chance to return, declined, saying the role belonged to Blunt in this film and she didn’t want to be a distraction.
Blunt said in interviews she based the character a little closer to the Mary Poppins of the books, who was, she says, “meaner.” Wrote the New Yorker, “Almost every musical number in the new film is designed to match a sequence in the old one… It’s far too soon to know whether the songs of today will stick, lodging in our collective ear as those of 1964 have done. What’s amazing is the tenacity with which the gods of Disney, for all the novelties of their digital art, have clung to the formulas of yore.”
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com