Mary Poppins returns as Emily Blunt reprises the iconic (and contentious) role
There’s a special place in Hollywood hell for actors who take on beloved characters and butcher them on screen.
Film fans are a protective breed, as Johnny Depp discovered after his lavish turn as Willy Wonka left many yearning for the restrained menace of Gene Wilder. Ben Affleck is still reeling from the backlash to his Batman stint.
So when Emily Blunt told the ABC she was nervous about becoming Mary Poppins, it’s easy to believe her.
“I tried to let all the, ‘Mary Poppins! She’s so iconic! Julie Andrews!’ be like white noise and just sort of approach her as I would any other characters,” she said.
“But I do remember that feeling coming down with the kite, with the umbrella, with the bag and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m Mary Poppins!'”
Blunt plays the titular character in the sequel to the 1964 Disney hit about a magical nanny who descends from the sky to deliver a bit of fun and fantasy to kids in depression-era London.
In Mary Poppins Returns — released in Australia on New Year’s Day — the children from the original story have grown up and it’s their own kids now in need of a bit of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious frivolity.
In the more than 50 years since Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke first sung and danced to songs likes A Spoonful of Sugar and Let’s Go Fly A Kite, the attachment many feel to the characters has only strengthened.
“I didn’t want to just do a bad impersonation of Julie,” Blunt said.
“I mean that should be preserved and treasured and kept as it is. And no-one is going to out-Julie Julie Andrews. Ever.”
Instead, Blunt said she drew inspiration from the books, written by Australian-born author Pamela Lyndon Travers, which have a rather different take on Ms Poppins.
“She’s weird and eccentric and completely unknowable and rude,” Blunt said.
“[She] reveals none of her inner workings. She’s completely enigmatic.”
It’s a characterisation that might have pleased Travers far more than the original reportedly ever did.
A difficult adaptation
The journey to the 1964 film was long and chequered for Disney.
It took 20 years for Walt Disney himself to convince Travers to grant him the rights to the story and her response to the finished product was cool, to say the least.
Having been flown to the US to advise on the production, Travers didn’t actually see the result until its premiere in Hollywood’s renowned Chinese Theatre.
According to an exchange recounted to the New Yorker by the film’s songwriter Richard Sherman, Travers was heard to loudly exclaim at the afterparty: “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.”
To which Disney flatly replied: “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”
The story of this adaptation has since been brought to life in its own 2013 film, Saving Mr Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.
It was from the Walt Disney productions stable and, as some reviewers wryly noted, paints Travers as a particularly prickly producer.
Yet rather than shy from the animations of the first film, sequel director Rob Marshall said he embraced them.
“One of the reasons I did that was because I felt that I use myself as a barometer,” he told the ABC.
“I’d want to see an animation live-action sequence. There’s no question. And I’d want it to be hand drawn.
“I just felt that the artistry of that hand-drawn, 2D, classic-style animation is something that is in the DNA of this material and I wanted to find that and put it in.”
Marshall was able to pick and choose other elements (and actors) from the original to include in his film, but there was one he’d have to go without: Julie Andrews.
“We talked about this idea of her being in the film, and she said to me very clearly, ‘You know what, no. This is Emily [Blunt]’s show. She should run with it’,” he said.
“I thought that was so generous and so smart and I really appreciated that.”
As for Blunt, she said friends had been quick to welcome Mary Poppins back into their lives after such a long time.
“My friend Tommy said to me, ‘I didn’t realise how much I needed her to come back until I saw your feet coming out of the clouds. And I cried because I was so relieved she was back’.”
No doubt Blunt and Disney will be hoping other long-time fans feel the same.