You Can Thank Kurt Russell For The Penguins In Mary Poppins

The entertainment industry might be run by grown-ups, but sometimes, kids are the best collaborators. Celebrated author Neil Gaiman took a cue from his young daughter, Holly when writing his deeply unsettling novella "Coraline," and if it weren't for Edward Berger's teenage daughter, we might not have the latest on-screen adaptation of "All Quiet on the Western Front." A young Kurt Russell shouldn't be left off the list, either. According to the actor, his feedback on an early cut of "Mary Poppins" led to Dick Van Dyke eventually dancing around with animated penguins.

In a 2016 conversation with GQ, Russell revealed that he actually had a close relationship with Walt Disney as a young teen. As such, Disney would ask for his thoughts on upcoming films (it probably didn't hurt that the actor fit squarely into the studio's target demographic). When Disney eventually asked about "Mary Poppins," Russell admitted that the then-current version of the movie was "okay," but not something that he'd recommend.

Upon hearing the teen's reaction, Disney had an epiphany: "we need some penguins!" The rest was history. 

Although the animation was difficult and time-consuming to create, it was nevertheless added — much to the movie's lasting benefit. Sure, we currently live in an age where CGI is everywhere (and some of its novelty has worn off), but there's still something ridiculously endearing about watching Dick Van Dyke prance around with his little animated friends. It's no wonder that in 1964, at a point when films were generally live-action or animated (but not both), The Exhibitor would call "Mary Poppins" "magical."

Creating the penguins

Russell's comments may have brought about the penguins, but he wasn't the only person involved in their creation. The scene required lots of careful work — and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge some of the incredible behind-the-scenes talent.

First off, animating the penguins themselves was no simple task. Frank Thomas, who was in charge of the scene's animation, had planned out the penguins' movements before Dick Van Dyke's dance was filmed. However, when it came time to add the animation to the live-action footage, Thomas faced a major problem:

"As I get the film of Dick actually doing the dance, here's his feet flying all around [and] stepping on my penguins. [...] So I had them duck and I had them jump and I had them get out of the way any way they could."

Now, I have to admit, the individual dance moves may have been frustrating to animate, but I really think they add to the scene's charm. Since the penguins usually dance in unison, the little ducks and kicks add a bit of personality to each of them. Plus, it's fun to pretend that the moves are born out of spontaneous, wholesome joy — almost as though the penguins are bursting with happiness.

Of course, even the very fact that Dick Van Dyke was able to dance with animated penguins was a marvel. Engineer Petro Vlahos deserves all the praise here: he created a one-of-a-kind camera that could essentially isolate a live-action background, then replace it with an animated image. (The camera was used in several other "Mary Poppins" scenes, too.)

Ultimately, the movie's adorable penguins wouldn't have existed without a lot of incredible talent — and, of course, Russell's comments. Leave it to Disney to realize just how valuable a kid's opinion could be.