Production on Mary Poppins Returns, Disney’s sequel to the 1964 classic, began shortly after an election flipped the world upside down in 2016. It hasn’t quite returned right-side-up since — but in some ways, director Rob Marshall never assumed it would. From his point of view, the optimism that Mary Poppins helps the Banks family recapture in his film has only flown further and further away in the real world.
When EW visited the set of Mary Poppins Returns in March of 2017, Marshall spoke about his decision to place the sequel in London’s 1930s economic depression (twenty-some years after the events of the first Poppins film) and refocus the character of Mary Poppins in his story as a harbinger of hope. A year and a half later, the director has only become more convinced of it. “If I felt that way then, I feel it twice, 19 times as much now,” the filmmaker, 58, tells EW. “I just feel like this is something we need so badly. We live in such a fragile time, that we need this film. I certainly felt that I needed it. I needed to turn off the news and be launched into a magical world where wondrous things can happen still, and there’s hope.”
Marshall, screenwriter David Magee, and the core creative team culled the film’s new story from the unused adventures in author P.L. Travers’ eight-book children’s series (the original Mary Poppins was mostly inspired by the first installment). The sequel’s story strings together a series of episodic adventures (including animated escapades with Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Jack and a gravity-flipping visit to Meryl Streep‘s Topsy) into a story that sends the enigmatic nanny (Emily Blunt) back to Cherry Tree Lane to help the burdened young children of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) rediscover happiness after the death of their mother.
“It’s not only the loss of a mother, but the kids and even Jane [Emily Mortimer] and Michael have also lost a sense of wonder and joy, and the theme that drove me — of finding that child alive inside you — was, to me, an important story to tell,” says Marshall. “We haven’t had Mary Poppins in 54 years, and I think we need her now more than ever. I feel like in this world, in this time, she’s the adult in the room. We need someone who can, with no nonsense, just set things straight and remind us what the values of real life are. There’s wonder and joy in life, not just divisiveness and sadness and darkness. And it’s how you look at things, right? This is probably my most personal film because of that. It’s what I wanted to say, today, right now.”
Marshall’s Christmas (or, technically, Dec. 19) wish is that families see the film together and discuss the lessons Mary Poppins teaches afterwards. But since the movie’s announcement in late 2015, Marshall has also been prepared for less receptive audience members — skeptics who have either inaccurately dubbed the film a remake or made up their minds about the film’s quality even before the first trailer arrived. “A lot of cynical people will [scoff] and say, ‘Oh, Mary Poppins,’ but they don’t realize that that’s what gets you through life. It certainly gets me through life, being able to see things from a child’s perspective and find the joy in everything. People are also so quick to be cynical and say, ‘Well, that’s for children.’ But this movie is for those people, the cynics. It’s for the adults. What’s that great thing Walt Disney said? His films are not films for children, but for the children inside all of us. And I think we need to be reminded of that, that it’s adults who need to hear this message even more than the kids.”
The film’s actors agree. Meryl Streep signed on to the film with confidence in Marshall’s ambitious vision, but it was only after she arrived on set and watched a full staging of one of the film’s buoyant production numbers that she called the film as “a gift to the world.” And Blunt, who tried not to get overwhelmed by the importance of Mary Poppins, remembers the shooting of Mary’s first arrival as a definitive moment for her in recognizing the project’s power.
She recalls, “When we shot the arrival scene from the skies, I was 50 feet in the air hanging from a crane and just so scared, and Rob blared the music from the speakers as I was coming in, this incredible score, and it helped combat the fear. And as I landed, I remember one of the camera guys came up and was like [Cockney accent] ‘I got really choked up watchin’ you arrive there. Got really emotional watchin’ you do that.’ And it was so beautiful because it just kind of reminded me how I think people really need a film like this and a moment like this — for hope to reappear from the skies. Maybe we didn’t realize how much we wanted her to come back.”