Early on in Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Blunt does something positively un-Mary-like while singing one of the magical sequel’s infectious new songs. While crooning about a rambunctious music hall, Blunt, as Mary, slides her voice. She growls.
Julie Andrews would never.
This isn’t to insinuate that Blunt isn’t practically perfect in every way, taking on the iconic role 54 years after Andrews sent her bottomless carpetbag to storage. It’s that, as Blunt explains after a screening of the film Monday night in New York alongside director Rob Marshall and co-stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Whishaw, she’s practically perfect in her way.
“I knew that taking on a role as iconic as this played by somebody as iconic as Julie Andrews, that I had my work cut out for me,” Blunt says. “But at the same time, I tried to approach it as fearlessly as possible, because she is such an extraordinary character.”
Blunt dove into P.L. Travers’s books, on which the 1964 Disney classic was based, and discovered that the character is remarkably different from the characterization Andrews so memorably brought to the original.
“She’s weird,” Blunt laughs. “And sort of batty. Really funny. Just so funny. And incredibly rude and acerbic. I just found her eccentricity just a delight. She is so enigmatic. She is mysterious. She doesn’t reveal her inner workings to anybody, which I find really intriguing and sort of delicious.”
Anyone familiar with director Rob Marshall’s work, which includes big-screen adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods—not to mention the storied legacy of the original Mary Poppins production itself—should know to expect dazzling vibrancy in the new film’s set design, choreography, production value and costumes. In fact, it’s the nanny’s wardrobe that Blunt saw as a key to her take on the character.
“I feel like this coat I wear when I arrive, this blue coat which is quite austere and quite put together, and then the inside is this absolutely batty fluorescent orange lining,” she said. “And that’s her.”
Within minutes of revisiting the Banks children—the events of Mary Poppins Returns take place 25 years after the first, with Jane and Michael Banks all grown up, the latter with children of his own—Mary has them journeying through a bathtub drain to sing and dance (well, swim) under the sea. “Off we go!” she chirps with a knowing smile, whisking the youngest Bankses to an animated music hall, an upside-down repair shop presided over by Meryl Streep, and to a lamplighters’ grand production number.
“She’s like an adrenaline junkie going into these fantasias,” Blunt said. “It’s sort of her outlet, you know? I think that’s where she should explode. It’s where she laughs, it’s where you see her smile, it’s where you see her at her happiest. Because she’s got to be emblematic of childlike wonder, because it’s what she tries to infuse into their lives.”
The film makes you wait for Mary Poppins’ arrival, using the lead-up to her applause-earning entrance to set up the story’s emotional spine: Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) lost his wife and mother to his three children, and, thanks to a defaulting loan, perhaps soon his cherished 17 Cherry Tree Lane house, too.
Not that the film’s opening is lacking in familiarity, greeting the audience with the instantly-recognizable imagery of a flickering lamplight.
It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s infectious smile and cockney rasp we meet next—one, with all due respect, considerably more refined than Dick Van Dyke’s spin on the dialect—as Jack, an apprentice of Van Dyke’s Bert who used to wave at the Banks children from the lamppost outside their window.
“There’s a different point of view waiting for you, if you just look up,” he sings in the opening number “Underneath the Lovely London Sky,” a warming morsel of advice for audiences watching in today’s cultural climate, as well as a clever tease to the flying nanny soon to make her way to the screen.
“I had an amazing research assistant in childlike wonder, which is my two-year-old son,” Miranda, speaking just 24 hours after receiving his special Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., says. “We moved to London to make this movie and he was just gaining language and I was watching him power his own imagination by its own power. I give Rob a lot of credit for seeing me in this part, because when you think Hamilton, childlike innocence is not what you see on stage.”
The entire cast found surprising personal connections to their roles. For Whishaw, whose Michael is struggling to realize that the stressors on his life have forced his children to grow up far too fast, it was observing his own brother, a new, young father himself.
“I thought about him a lot, because I see how difficult it is and how stressful it is,” he says. “I could see my brother’s vulnerability. I see him as a child because I know him as a child. So I see that he’s a father, but he’s a kid.”
Mortimer’s Jane Banks has taken on the role of mother figure to Michael’s children, having not gotten married herself and feeling that, as she works on behalf of labor rights, that time in her life has passed her by. In researching the film’s time period of 1930s London, not long after the end of World War I, she learned something surprising about the legal limits placed on women.
“The women who had been taking all the jobs in the war effort had to be sort of got rid of somehow, so they introduced this law, this actual law, which said you couldn’t have a professional job and be married at the same time,” Mortimer said. “That really got to me.”
She found something heartbreaking about Jane, that she thought it would be safer for her to love everybody around her, going so far as to have a career in civil rights, instead of expecting love to come to her.
“It’s a much more whispering kind of help that Mary gives to Jane,” she said, alluding to one of the film’s more charming subplots. “But she helps her feel like she can look for love herself rather than give it.”
Several times during the conversation, Blunt alludes to Mary’s “enigmatic master plan,” what exactly it is that she hopes to accomplish with her meddling in each of the Banks’ lives. But when it comes to the film itself, a risky gamble coming all these decades after the beloved original, the goal is blessedly less of a mystery.
“We all felt we needed this film,” says Marshall. “To be able to go to work and put this message of this film out into the world now… And it became more important as we started to work on it, because the world got even darker and more fragile.”
“I know for certain the films that I grew up with like Mary Poppins, like The Sound of Music, like Oliver!, the films that meant so much to me gave me that sort of sense of seeing life with wonder and joy,” he continues. “It might sound like a trivial thing, but to me it’s everything. To me, it’s what life is.”
Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters December 19.