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It’s no secret that all nannies are compared to one single, supernaturally-inclined doyenne of discipline who flew in on the eastern wind in 1964. The iconic character has stayed in the hearts of moviegoers in the decades since she first burst onto the screen — and now, she’s back.
Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns (in theaters Christmas 2018) might be one of the highest-profile sequels ever attempted, more than half a century after Walt Disney’s cinematic classic immortalized the careers of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, smashed records, got a word in the dictionary (guess which one) and become one of the most cherished films of all time. Set in 1910, the original film, loosely based on the first two volumes of P.L. Travers’ eight-book series, told the story of how Mary Poppins united an absent father and his two playful children through her singular, enigmatic magic. But there were six more Travers books, bursting with more characters and stories, waiting to be adapted on screen one day.
Mary Poppins Returns, directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods), picks up 25 years after the events of the first film, fast-forwarding to London’s mid-1930s economic slump, the actual time period of Travers’ books. Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane has become the warm, loving home that banker and artist Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) shares with his wife and three children. But after the sudden death of Michael’s wife, the Banks family is shattered — even enthusiastic aunt Jane (Emily Mortimer), now a fervent union organizer, and long-time housemaid Ellen (Julie Walters) can’t help lift spirits — and so in time, the once-blossoming home is on the verge of foreclosure.
Cue the arrival of prim and peculiar Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who leads Michael’s wayward children (and Jane and Michael themselves) on a series of unbelievable adventures — to the top of Big Ben, the bottom of the ocean, into magical encounters with animated dancing penguins and upside-down cousins (hey, Meryl Streep!). If anyone can help this family find the light they’ve lost, it’s Mary Poppins.
Contending with five decades of a practically-perfect legacy, the sequel’s filmmakers have dedicated themselves to being as faithful and respectful to the iconic original as possible while still crafting a fresh new family musical. “The bar is so high for this,” says Marshall, who also directed the Oscar-winning Chicago. “But to be able to walk in the footsteps of this beautiful story about a woman who brings magic to this family that’s looking for wonder and hope and joy in their lives… I feel a great responsibility and reverence every day. We all feel it. We’re just lifting it up to get there with the right intentions behind it.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the cast, full of lifelong lovers of Mary Poppins like Blunt (who earned Julie Andrews’ blessing as the character long before the first camera rolled) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who plays Mary’s pal Jack, a winsome lamplighter and former apprentice of Dick Van Dyke’s famed chimney sweep, Bert). Even the creative departments abound with folks who know the stakes and want to get this right: Tony-winning composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) penned a new score that sounds downright Poppins-esque, while costume designer Sandy Powell and her team worked to bring the iconic looks of Mary and the Banks family into the stylish 1930s.
EW was on the film’s London set earlier this year and returned with a boundless carpet bag of goodies about the buzzy sequel. From the stunning recreation of Cherry Tree Lane at Shepperton Studios to the real streets of old London where Jack trips the light fantastic, the set of Mary Poppins Returns is a veritable playground, and Mary’s spirit is unmistakably present. So was Dick Van Dyke, filming a top-secret cameo — no, not as Bert — just a day prior to EW’s visit. “Dick Van Dyke said that the thing he remembers the most about doing the original film was the spirit, and he said, ‘It’s exactly the same spirit here,’ Marshall says, standing on the sunny cobblestones in front of No. 17. “He was right here on Cherry Tree Lane and he said, ‘I feel like I’m home.’”