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For Rob Marshall, 'Mary Poppins Returns' is a spoonful of memories

The director, who fell in love with 'Mary Poppins' as a kid, hopes his sequel will go down in the most delightful way with audiences.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, left, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael

Lin-Manuel Miranda, left, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt do more than step in time in this scene from "Mary Poppins Returns." Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures / Jay Maidment

It makes sense, if you think about it, that many people’s first movie was a Disney film. For author Stephen King, it was “Bambi.” For actor David Arquette, it was “Pinocchio.” And for a 4-year-old Rob Marshall, the Oscar-nominated director of “Chicago” (2002) and “Into the Woods” (2014), it was “Mary Poppins” (1964). Now he’s helming the sequel “Mary Poppins Returns,” which opens Wednesday.

“If I went back and told my teenage self that I would be the one to take ‘Mary Poppins,’ which meant so much to me, into this new chapter, I’d have said, ‘You’re insane. That will never happen,’ “ muses Marshall, 58, unabashedly doing the New York holiday thing by choosing a table at a Rockefeller Center restaurant with a view of the ice-skating rink and the Christmas tree. “I used myself as a barometer the whole time” that he was filming “Mary Poppins Returns,” he says. “What would I want to see in a sequel? I want to see an animation-live-action sequence” like in the original, for one thing. “And I’d want it to be hand-drawn,” as it was, both then and now.

Set in London 25 years after the events of the first film, the sequel centers on the now adult Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer, Ben Whishaw). Michael is a widower with three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson), working as a teller at the very Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his own father had been an executive. When the family home falls in danger of foreclosure, the magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) reappears. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack, a lamplighter, and Colin Firth the new head of the bank.

Disney in 2015 had first expressed interest in a sequel to best picture Oscar nominee “Mary Poppins,” for which Julie Andrews won an Academy Award playing the title role. At the time, remembers Marshall, “I was able to sort of make it clear that if it ever were [to go into production], I was very much aware of the eight books [in author P.L. Travers’ 1934-1988 series] and that there might be more stories to tell. But I never really thought it was a possibility, because the rights are so tied up by the Travers estate.”

Those issues got sorted out, and when Disney eventually approached him and his husband and producing partner John DeLuca, “It was daunting to consider the possibility of following in the steps of that first movie,” director and co-story writer Marshall says. “But at the same time, I thought, ‘If anybody’s going to do it, I want to do it,’ because I wanted to protect the spirit of the first film.” With a screenplay by two-time Academy Award nominee David Magee (“Finding Neverland,” “Life of Pi”), “Mary Poppins Returns” was shot at England’s Shepperton Studios from February to June 2017.

The filmmakers approached Andrews about a cameo appearance, with many speculating that the new film’s role of a park balloon vendor, played by Angela Lansbury, was what they had in mind.

“No, we never even got that far with Julie,” says Marshall, who has known Andrews “very well and for a long time. Way before we started writing anything, I told her we were doing it, and it was going to be Emily Blunt [as Mary Poppins], and she threw her arms around me said, ‘Oh, I love her,’ and I thought that was just so beautiful. And then I said, ‘Should we talk about your being involved in some way? And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no. This is Emily’s show, this is her movie, she should run with it.’ “

On further consideration, Marshall agreed. “I began thinking, ‘I dunno, Sean Connery hanging around Roger Moore?” referring to when the latter took over the former’s role in the James Bond movie franchise. “You know? ‘Look! There’s Sean!’ So we never even got that far” as to discuss a specific role.

But the film does, of course, feature the legendary Dick Van Dyke, who played both chimney sweep Bert and bank president Mr. Dawes Sr. in the 1964 film, and briefly reprises one of those roles in the sequel.

“Filming with him was the highlight of my whole career,” Marshall says, his face lit up like, well, a kid at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. “Because it’s a full-circle childhood dream come true to work with my hero — this man who I saw in ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’. . . . He grabbed my hand — I’ll never forget this — as we walked out to the set. He literally grabbed me and said to me, ‘I feel the same spirit here as I did on the first film.’ Which for me was everything.’ “

The actor, then 91, delivered — including, amazingly, with a soft-shoe dance. Marshall and DeLuca together choreographed something that involved Van Dyke climbing up onto a desk. “So I presented it to him and he said, ‘I’m in.’ And he did it. And if you watch, Lin-Manuel reaches to him to help him on, but he shoos him away.”

And when the venerable star delivered “this beautiful, beautiful monologue to the kids . . . I started to cry,” Marshall says. “And I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t yell cut. And I think Emily sort of saved me, because she said [to the cast and crew], ‘I think that’s it.’ I think they all realized how moved I was, and I couldn’t believe the full circle of that movie for me.”

The magical nanny Mary Poppins seems to hang around London a lot, but she’s been spotted on Long Island on occasion — played by homegrown talents in local Disney-licensed productions of the stage musical.

“She comes into people’s households, especially dysfunctional ones, and she’s able to take that dysfunction and turn it around to the positive so the family can come together again,” reflects Karen Keenan, who also performs as Karen Santaromita and played Mary Poppins in a 2015 production at St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Station.

“And she does it in her own type of way,” the Syosset-born Keenan, a physical therapist who lives in Huntington, says of the character’s sweetly supernatural efforts. Playing a magical character, Keenan says, “is a little bit [difficult] because you don’t really have a concrete person to base it on. What I really liked most about the character is she really made you believe anything can happen if you let it. And I think that’s very true in life.”

Emma Harrington, who played Mary Poppins in a Plaza Theatrical Productions staging at the Long Island Children’s Museum in Garden City in July and reprises the role for Plaza in January at The Showplace at the Bellmore Movies, also had a connection with the character. “I’m a music teacher, so I find a lot of similarities,” she says. “Mary Poppins is trying to transform the lives of kids by providing these magical experiences for them, and in many ways as a music teacher, I’m trying to do the same thing for my students.”

Harrington, a music-education graduate student at the University of Delaware, who teaches part-time at a charter school, says Poppins “is such a fun role, with all those big numbers. But honestly, my favorite part is at the very end when she comes to terms with the fact that her work is done, she’s done what she had to do, and this family is on its way to becoming whole again. It’s a subtle exit that she takes, with just the knowledge that she has done good work.”

 
— Frank Lovece

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