The Musical Numbers Are Gloriously Old-School

Okay, so the songs sound pretty great. But what about the actual musical numbers? How’s the actual singing and dancing in Mary Poppins Returns?

It’s hard to say until we see a finished sequence cut together and projected on the big screen, but we were able to watch one big song and dance number being filmed. Sung by Miranda, the song finds Jack and his fellow lamplighters dancing in a London park, a park with multiple levels and all kinds of unique scenic choices, all the better in which to stage a dance sequence. Myhre told us that every singe set was built like this – to maximize the potential for a dance number:

[Director Rob Marshall] is the choreographer as well as the director and everything we built for this movie has been built with him and the dancers in mind. And everything is very musical. Rob doesn’t like straight because curved is more musical.

While we were only able to watch the number being performed for a few minutes and from one stationary camera angle, what we saw was downright magical. The choreography is more complex and advanced than the famous chimney sweep sequence from the original, but this is very much a spiritual descendant to that number. London’s working class reveals itself to be dancers of the highest caliber, while Mary and the Banks children look on in joyous astonishment.

Miranda joked that making a movie musical made him miss the applause of a live audience:

Well, the only really key difference is that you finish the musical number and they applaud in a year-and-a-half, which is jarring…. Just cause that’s the weirdest part. We’re doing a very elaborate musical numbers, more than anything you’d see on a Broadway stage and in 3D, and then you’re [breathing heavy] and they yell “cut, let’s do it again. So I miss the buzz of applause a little bit…

But Miranda was more than happy to put himself in the hands of Marshall, whose Chicago he holds in high regard:

I think Chicago is the best movie adaptation of a musical, which is the hardest thing to pull off. And I’ve talked about it with Rob many times. I mean, he was born in the wrong era. Like if he were born during the MGM unit, there’d be tons of Rob Marshall classics, so seeing him get to work on an original musical is really thrilling because you’re there from the ground up. You’re building the music, you’re building the story, so he already did the hardest thing, which was to adapt a two-act musical into a three-act film. So now to get to build an original musical and to watching him do it has been one of the great learning experiences of my life.

This is a Big Special Effects Movie

We may think of the original Mary Poppins as an “old school” movie musical these days, but it’s very much a blockbuster in every sense of the word. It’s expensive, lavish, and filled with groundbreaking special effects and set pieces that defy genre barriers. In concept art on display for the sequel, we saw sequences that push the boundaries of reality in significant ways. One musical number takes place in a bathtub that becomes an ocean (complete with massive rubber ducky!) before venturing underwater. It’s no wonder this film had a lengthy post-production process rivaling that of a Star Wars movie – the filmmakers are building entire worlds! As Myhre explained:

So while the real world is very grey, whenever Mary Poppins comes in it becomes light. I’m just going to take you through a few of the adventures. There’s an early one where she makes the kids take a bath, which they didn’t want to do, until of course they fall into the tub and end up under water in a magical adventure. All of the toys of ships and rubber ducks become giant and they float and fly through an underwater world.

And yes, like the 1964 original, one of the biggest set pieces in Mary Poppins Returns will find the live-action cast entering an animated world and interacting with animated characters. Platt introduced the concept to us early on in our visit:

There’s an animated sequence in the film. Again, taking from the trope of the original, if you remember, there was an animated sequence. And what made it, distinguished it, in its day was that there was an interaction between live action characters and animation, which we do as well. We do it in our own contemporary way… So we have that wonderful set piece of music and dance, done with live action, set against a whole animated world.

Later on, Myhre explained the nature of the animated sequence. It seems that the Banks children break a valuable bowl covered with colorful imagery, and Mary Poppins declares that they must fixt it…by venturing into the paintings on the bowl itself and meeting the cast of animals (dressed as people, of course) who live there. Myhre set up the whole thing for us and it sounds charming as all get-out:

Something Rob wanted to do right from the beginning was do a nod to, from the original film when we saw those live action character set in an animated world. We wanted to do something different and make it more modern and possibly use different technologies. So the first thing, they jumped into a chalk painting in the original. So we said, what else can do we that’s Londony that’s not a chalk painting? It’s something they can interact with that’s something that could actually become a plot point or storytelling device. And in all our kind of Londony research, one of the things we found was Royal Doulton China. He thought, ‘Well you know what, what if they jumped into a Royal Doulton bowl?’ So this is a bowl that we made and everything that’s on the bowl from the horse to the carriage to the drivers to the park and the bridges,  these are all story points of things that will happen both outside the animated world and inside the animated world. The catalyst for them going in is that the children have a fight and they drop the bowl and the carriage wheel breaks off. So Mary Poppins tells them, because she’s a good nanny, if you break it, then you fix it. How can you fix something that’s out of a bowl? Well, you go inside the bowl to fix it.

While the animated world and characters will be added in post-production through a blend of traditional hand-drawn animation and CGI, Powell made some practical decisions on-set that will allow the actors to better blend in with the animated worlds. Specifically, her costumes during this sequence have a distinct hand-painted look, with all details and texture being drawn on flat cloth surfaces:

At the very, very beginning when we talked about doing this sequence of live-action mixed with animated, for some reason at the very beginning, I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to make the people look like their clothes had been drawn by the animators? To make them sort of fit with the animated world rather than look like they’d been plunked on top of it.  I think with the original, though I do love that “Supercalifragilistic,” there’s something a bit odd about it when you look at it, you can sort of see that the animation is a bit removed from the actors. So I’m hoping that this is sort of going to  integrate it a bit more. So having announced that this was an idea I’d like to try, I had to prove that it would work, I had no idea if it would work or not so I spent a good couple of months experimenting, mostly experimenting on different textures of fabric. Mostly it’s cottons and canvas and a plain white background to see how paint would take and then making clothes and painting on them to look like cartoon drawings. I got in touch with the animators at the beginning because I wanted to see examples of how they were going to paint the style of the animation, the style of the drawing, which you can see is a very old-fashioned line outlines and watercolors. I wanted the effect on all of these costumes to look like watercolor on paper with the white coming through.

The costumes were on display for us and they look wonderful. Hopefully, the final effect is as impressive as I think it will be.

Yes, They Will Dance With Penguins

Our set visit was too early in the process for us to see any finished animation, but we were shown one clip featuring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda dancing in an animated world. And yes, they were dancing with penguins, just like in the original movie.

I will not lie to you: I teared up a little.

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