When director Rob Marshall took the job on Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, it was one of his earliest visions for the film: a grand animated sequence honoring the groundbreaking live-action/animation hybrid utilized in 1964’s Mary Poppins. “I used myself as a barometer, honestly,” Marshall tells EW. “Just say I wasn’t involved in this at all. What would I be disappointed to see wasn’t in the film? And I knew I wanted to see an animation sequence in the 2-D style. Even though we were able to use new technology to move through this 2-D world, I knew I wanted to see that same hand-drawn animation that I grew up with.”
And since anything is possible, even the impossible—those are Mary Poppins’ words, not EW’s, although we do sort of agree for the most part — Marshall guided that conceptual must-have into one of the most crowdpleasing sequences in Mary Poppins Returns. Here’s how they pulled it off.
More important than anything else, Marshall faced the question of where an animated sequence would take place, and since the story beats of Mary Poppins Returns occur in various musicalized episodes cherry-picked from P.L. Travers’ original eight-book series, the possibilities were wide open. But the answer lied in “Bad Wednesday,” one of the first Travers chapters that the movie’s story trust — Marshall, producers John DeLuca and Marc Platt, composer/songwriter Marc Shaiman, songwriter Scott Wittman, and screenwriter David Magee — “knew we had to have in there,” says Magee.
In Travers’ second book Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins comes to the rescue after Jane Banks’ bad mood gets her trapped inside the painting of a Royal Doulton bowl by the porcelain’s sinister figures. As very reimagined in Mary Poppins Returns, the bowl is a treasured memento of the Banks children’s late mother which sits above the fireplace in their nursery. When it cracks during a bedtime spat, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) bring the kids inside the porcelain to fix what’s broken. They quickly meet a sociable dog named Shamus (Chris O’Dowd) and a horse called Clyde (Mark Addy), but soon the children also encounter a wolf voiced by Colin Firth, marking double-duty for the actor who plays the very non-cartoon real-world bank manager threatening to evict the Banks family from their home on Cherry Tree Lane.
Marshall explains, “In the story process, we realized that we wanted the animation sequence to be helpful in dealing with the kids’ biggest fear, which is that they were going to lose their house. So we knew there had to be a dark side of the animated sequence, and in realizing who the villain is — a wolf in sheep’s clothing — he became the wolf, with the two lawyers playing the badger and weasel.” Marshall says Firth loved getting involved in the process. “Colin said, ‘I will play this role any way you want me to — you just tell me how.’”
Like Marshall, costume designer Sandy Powell had one of her first visions on the film in animation; particularly, Powell relished the first splash of color when the humans arrive in the cartoonified porcelain. “I had this idea really early on that it would be fun to make the costumes look like they were part of the animation as opposed to really jarring or fighting against it,” Powell told EW. “In the original Mary Poppins, obviously that’s the most popular bit of the whole film and it’s the bit I remember most, but there’s something a bit odd when you see the people in real clothes [against] the animation. There’s always the separation between the animated character sand the live-action characters, and I wanted to see if I could bring them closer together.”
Powell solved her self-challenged “experiment” with a long process of trial and error of painted parasols and cel-shaded petticoats. “I really had no idea whether it would work, but I thought it was a fun idea, and we spent weeks practicing with different styles of paintings and fabrics and camera-testing it,” Powell says. “Actually, I would say they look even better on camera than they do to the eye.” Powell dubs the animated outfits the most complicated costumes in the film, as well as the pieces that had her department had to complete first in order to give animators enough time to design around them. “I got to work with the animators very closely on the clothes the animals would wear as well, all 19th-century animal versions of things. It was absolutely new to have a hand in that as well,” Powell gushes, adding that the animated sequence was as much a fantastic escape for her team as it was for the Banks family. “What’s wonderful about doing real-life London for the rest is that when you do get to the fantasy sequences, that’s where you can just go mad.”
Where “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” once delighted audiences in the cartoon section of 1964’s Mary Poppins, the sequel finds its musical heirs apparent in a pair of songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman: “The Royal Doulton Music Hall,” sung as the group travels via horse-drawn carriage to a mythical, mystical, never-quite-logistical concert hall, and “A Cover is Not the Book,” a big vaudeville number that lets Mary and Jack demonstrate for the Banks children — and audiences — what a jolly good show looks like when Mary Poppins is involved.
As Marshall puts it, the proscenium number is a key ingredient he couldn’t imagine not having. “Some of the best musical numbers in film are on a stage,” says Marshall, who famously employed that thinking in his Best Picture winner Chicago. “I could go through all [the musicals] and point you to 8 million different songs that are done on a stage, because it’s the most natural place to sing and you’re not questioning it. So when Mary goes up on stage to perform and it feels natural, that was really important and all intentional because we get a chance to sit and watch this spicy, rowdy number that the kids can enjoy and see Jack and Mary together.”
If audience members get Chicago flashbacks, that’s no accident, either. “There’s nobody better about staging a musical number than Rob Marshall,” says production designer John Myrhe, who won an Oscar for his work on Marshall’s 2002 movie-musical. “This is really Rob’s world, and in working with him since Chicago I know that Rob really likes using models. We do 3-D models of everything, but he likes to actually have a foam core model on all the shows we do. And he said, even though it’s animated, ‘Let’s design it as though we’re doing it on Broadway.’ So we really set up this music hall so that there could have been curtains that came up, or water that falls down, or sheers that dropped or pieces that opened. We created models and treated that stage as though it was completely real.”
Because of the demands of the post-production timeline, “A Cover is Not the Book” was the first thing Blunt and Miranda shot for Mary Poppins Returns. “It was terror,” laughs Blunt. But despite their fear, the pair’s big start marked an off-the-deep-end moment that set the tone for the peculiarities of the production. “It was such a lovely mix working with these [filmmakers] in terms of what their vision is and how it fits on you. They make these parts like tailored suits,” says Miranda. “It was a lot of figuring out our way through it, and animators giving notes like, ‘This is going to be a giant opening storybook, which side do you want to jump over?’ or an hour figuring out exactly where to place your elbow, or ‘The penguin’s going to be a little heavier holding onto your cane, can you show us that?’ It was like all of the avant-garde training I did as a theater major at Wesleyan came in handy dealing with imaginary penguins and invisible costars.”
Though greenscreen played a necessary part in the number’s production, Myrhe was keen to make things a little more Poppins-ified for the cast. “If we were working with James Cameron, there probably would be an orange tennis ball that the kids would have to look at as an eyeline,” Myrhe muses. “But since we had kids, I thought, wouldn’t it be better if they could react to what they’re going to be reacting to? So every time the animators would create a new character, I would ask them to send it to me and tell me how tall the animal was, and I’d get it blown up into a standee so that in rehearsals, the kids and the actors were able to rehearse with the cut-outs and know how tall the wolf is or how big the orangutan conductor is, so that when we actually went to shoot, it made it much easier for the kids but also much more understandable and fun for the crew… because when you walk into a room full of all of these animated characters, you do just suddenly get a smile on your face.”
For the actors, the delight of working with animals — and in particular, Mary Poppins’ iconic penguin friends (named after Fred Astaire, Oliver Hardy, Gene Kelly, and Charlie Chaplin) — went flipper in flipper with the trepidation of the number’s technical demands, at least for Blunt. “Honestly, even just coming down that staircase, I had to laugh about it with Rob because it was the most terrified I was during all of the dance numbers,” recalls Blunt, who has also gone on record about her inability to make a complete turn. “I was wearing heels, and a huge skirt, and I’m a little blind without my glasses as well, which I’ve been failing to admit to myself, and so all of the green-screen stairs just sort of blur into one for me. But then one of the sweet dancers behind us eventually told me, ‘Just make sure you put your heel against the back of the step as you’re going down.’ Because I thought, ‘I’m going to fall and that will be it. That will be how I go.’”
One of the film’s biggest victories was luring several veteran Disney and Pixar artists to come out of retirement to work on Mary Poppins Returns — all of them keen to get the rare chance to do hand-drawn animation on a big studio film once again. Myrhe explains, “Even though it’s being done by people who have worked on the biggest of Pixar movies, it’s done in the old-school technique of all hand-drawn art, put onto clear transparencies and pen-and-inked. And what’s really fun is that it looks brand new. The animators stretched it and opened it and made it even more exciting and put their touch on it. Even though it’s a throwback to the old [style], it’s really unusual and fresh.”
The animators were challenged not just to give life to the animals singing at, dancing in, or enjoying the show within the Royal Music Hall, but in what could be Mary Poppins Returns’ biggest animated surprise, the film blends technologies for a thrilling chase scene punctuating the Banks children’s trip inside the bowl. Pursued by Firth’s wolf, the kids must save themselves from a reckless chase around the dark, dangerous edge. “Working out how the animated characters will interplay with the kids, you had to be very specific, especially with something like the chase,” says Marshall. “With just the three kids, you have to help them imagine what they’re doing. They’re in a green room and it’s all going to be erased and changed, but it was a joy to really work with the kids to make them feel like these things are actually happening. And you do it in pieces, which helps tremendously.”
Layering a bona fide action sequence on top of an animation sequence, Marshall should have faced a steep learning curve. But then again, the director helmed a Pirates of the Caribbean movie (the fourth installment, On Stranger Tides), and the painstaking process of storyboarding animation is, in fact, in line with Marshall’s reputation as a meticulous master of detail. “I was surprised at how much I loved [directing animation] and how comfortable I felt doing it, because involves a lot of choreography, which is my background,” Marshall points out. “You do it in pieces like a mosaic. We work from storyboards and what’s called pre-vis, which is this template of what you’re going to film. So you’re doing a little piece here, a little piece there, and it’s sort of what filmmaking really is, in a broad sense — creating a piece and then refining and refining it and putting it all together, making it as real as possible, making it feel the stakes are high, and then moving to the next one. I love that kind of work, and it took a long time to get there… but watching it develop was honestly magical, because all of a sudden there it was: the 2-D animation that I loved and grew up with and was hoping we could bring to this film.”
“I’m still astonished watching it,” he adds. Audiences, evidently, are too.