Last year, I flew across the Atlantic Ocean to visit London, England. Specifically, I visited London, England so I could visit a recreation of London, England on a series of sound stages at Shepperton Studios. But this wasn’t just any recreation of London. This was the London of Mary Poppins Returns, a London full of magic and whimsy and yes, lots and lots of music.

A direct sequel to the 1964 original, Mary Poppins Returns stars Emily Blunt as the magical nanny and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, her new partner-in-song-and-dance. Rob Marshall, the director of Chicago and Into the Woods, is behind the camera and everything we saw on set suggests that this movie should be a delight.

This is Very Much a Sequel to the 1964 Original

Despite the new cast (and despite being made over 50 years later), Mary Poppins Returns is very much a direct sequel to the original Mary Poppins. It’s still set on Cherry Street Lane. It still focuses on the Banks family. And the magical nanny of the title is the same magical nanny Julie Andrews played all the way back in 1964.

Producer Marc Platt laid out the basic plot structure for us:

Our story is, as I said, set in the 1930s. Michael Banks, the young boy from the original film, is now a father of a family and he’s living in Cherry Tree Lane in the house and he has children. There’s been a loss in the family, and so there’s a need for Mary Poppins to come back into their world and to the world of these new children, to the world of Michael Banks and his sister Jane, and see if she can bring joy back into their lives.

And while Michael Banks is now played by Ben Whishaw and Jane Banks is now played by Emily Mortimer, they are very much the same characters we first met as young children so very long ago. During our set visit, we saw that old suffragette sash once worn by the Banks children’s mother, still acting as a kite tail. As a wonderful nod to their politically progressive mother, grown-up Emily is a union organizer. Of course, Michael has followed in his father’s footsteps and works as a banker under William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), the villain of the film.

The production team took this being a sequel very seriously. We saw concept art and models that showcased an exact recreation of the sets from the original movie and were even able to explore the Banks’ house, a surreal experience for anyone acquainted with the original film. Production designer John Myhre explained the process of building a mostly practical Cherry Tree Lane (although a fair amount of CGI will be used to bring everything to life):

The film opens up in the winter time and then at the end of all the Mary Poppins magic, spring comes magically overnight to London. So we needed a street that could look like this illustration here with all the bare trees and kind of grey and then magically, suddenly burst out in cherry blossom. So we built trees that were 30 feet tall that could one day be winter trees and then over the course of a two-week period where we pulled all the limbs out and put in new limbs, 900,000 to 1 million cherry blossoms had to be put on by hand, so that was the reason we ended up using this as something that we built here on the stage. Most of the other streets, almost all the other streets are going to be real.

But what about the Banks family’s neighbors? Yes, Admiral Boom is still alive and yes, he’s back in this movie, albeit in a naval-themed wheelchair.

While the story in Mary Poppins Returns is new, the basic structure will be familiar: Mary arrives and goes on a number of magical adventures with the (new) Banks kids. And Emily Blunt, who plays the new Mary, had nothing but praise for her young co-stars:

I’ll start with the kids because they are my main compadres on this. When someone says, “Hey, you want to take on Mary Poppins?” I’m like, “Yeah!” And then you realize that all of your scenes are with children. Actually, our kids are particularly brilliant and it’s been wonderful and quite moving to see them grow up in this experience and become real pros. Even Joel [Dawson] who wasn’t even eight when we started rehearsing, he was really young and hadn’t done anything before and having to be told, “This is a mark, you have to take your mark. You have to look here because of continuity.” Can you imagine hearing of that as a kid? Because he is such a bright boy, he has grasped it and he really is that character. So he has got this vibrancy to him as a person, and he is bonkers as well, he is absolutely mad. This boy’s imagination is incredible.

But It is Also an Adaptation of the Other Books

While Mary Poppins Returns frequently nods to the original film and exists in the same continuity, the production was not shy about utilizing the work of author P.L. Travers to fill out the story and the cast. As Platt explained:

We went right to the source, we went to P.L. Travers. And it turns out that P.L. Travers wrote eight books, and the original film really capitalizes on only one of the books. And what we found in her books was really a treasure trove of new characters and episodes. And we realized that we could bring the sequel, our own version and our own story, an original story of Mary Poppins all these years later in a very exciting way, but that we could draw upon the original source which is P.L. Travers.

The result is a remix of sorts, a “greatest hits” of Travers’ writing that borrows bits from across her entire work as everyone saw fit. Platt elaborated:

You know, we took from a number of them, actually. Because the books are in some ways a collection of episodes and adventures, and so we plucked some from various books and drew upon a number of them actually.

Fans of Travers’ work may be thrilled to know that the legendary Angela Lansbury is playing The Balloon Lady in Mary Poppins Returns. But regular ol’ movie fans will be excited by the mere presence of the great Meryl Streep. The three-time Oscar winner plays Topsy, a “fix-it shop owner” whose store is filled with assorted kick-knacks and items. We were able to tour this set and it quickly became apparent that this was no ordinary shop – everything was upside down. Literally. As Myhre explained as we navigated the surreal, wondrous, and entirely space:

The first Monday of every month, her entire house turns upside down. So I was reading that we needed to have Mary and Jack and the kids interact with an upside down fix it shop that would have not hundreds of things in it, but thousands of thousands of maybe ten thousand things in it. So if you can come up and take a peek at the illustrations, the lower one shows this upside down room, so the ceiling with the chandeliers are all down and the floor with the carpets and pianos and everything being fixed is up high. So we first started looking at this, most people were saying, ‘Well, we’ll probably do this in CG. We’ll probably shoot this in a big green-screen room.’ But Rob and I said, No, let’s actually build it. So we actually built a set that has thousands of things bolted to the ceiling and a set that Mary Poppins could look into that could have her looking down into the room…so she and the kids have to get into the room. So she steps on upside down shelves and walks across an upside down fireplace. 

Of course, the set was built to be large enough for a big musical number.

Emily Blunt Was the First Choice for the New Mary Poppins

Emily Blunt is one of the finest actresses working today, capable of leading soapy mysteries, prestige dramas, and kick-ass science fiction action movies. Of course, she was also the leading lady in director Rob Marshall’s big screen take on Into the Woods, which meant she was at the forefront of everyone’s minds when it came time to find the new Mary Poppins. Marc Platt told us all about it, finding time to also praise her singing and dancing abilities:

When it came to casting, really, we could only think of one person to step into the shoes and to own the role of Mary Poppins and that was Emily Blunt, an actress who we’ve worked with on Into the Woods and most recently did Girl on the Train with her. She’s not only a consummate actress, who possesses a tremendous craft as an actress, she sings beautifully. By the way, she dances magnificently, you’ll see in the film, which was a big surprise. But she’s also instantly authentic as the role of Mary Poppins. She’s very related to it, she grew up in this world. And she has a way, and has found a way, to make the character her own. It’s her own interpretation. And she’s quite sublime in the role.

Of course, it is not lost on anyone that Mary Poppins has not aged a day in decades. Platt explained:

Mary’s a character who lives outside time. She’s magic. And so she is the one character who actually doesn’t age. So she is as ever as we know her and as she will be forever, that character.

It’s very surreal to me being Mary Poppins,” Blunt told us when we sat down with her. The fact that she’s playing a legitimate icon is not lost on her:

Well, I think Mary Poppins as a character is so iconic, and I think the film, for me, and I think for most people, is one of those films that is sort of seared into people’s memory, an emblem of their nostalgia in many ways. So I do remember it very fondly and took such a great comfort in it as a child, 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.

Blunt explained that she had to find her own take on the character, because just doing a Julie Andrews impersonation was not going to get the job done:

I feel that I just try to approach her as I would any other character and not be caught up in the white noise of, “Oh my God, you are Mary Poppins.” I think that has been my main focus, is just to approach her calmly, as I would any other character, how I would play her, with what I have given on the page? I have not watched the originals since I saw it as a child, cause I… no one is going to outdo Julie Andrews. I think I just want to… this is just going to be my version her.

Meanwhile, costume designer Sandy Powell had to make sure the new Mary Poppins has a look that is instantly identifiable as…well, Mary Poppins. For her, it was all about nailing the silhouette:

So, the first thing to think about and probably the most daunting task was what Mary’s arrival outfit is and the look that we’re going to remember her for. 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.

Mary Poppins may be an immortal, supernatural nanny, but it’s been decades since the first movie and fashions have changed. Powell noted that Mary has kept up with the latest trends and dresses accordingly:

And that was set in sort of an Edwardian period, or meant to be an Edwardian period with some 1960s thrown in, but um 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 and actually 1934 is a period for women which is not a million miles away in shape because it’s a longer longer hemline, much longer than a few years later in the 1930s toward the war when hemlines rose up toward the knee.

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