A lot in animation has changed in the 54 years since Mary Poppins and a gaggle of dancing penguins blew young viewers’ minds in 1964. In fact, the rise of computer-aided animation and computer-generated effects has rendered hand-drawn animation so rare that when Disney decided to reboot the property with Mary Poppins Returns, the studio had to bring several animators out of retirement.
Producer Marc Platt told V.F. that the goal for their film was simple: to honor the original while telling an enchanting new story, and definitely not to lose the first film’s hand-drawn flourishes. “Rob Marshall, our director, from day one said, ‘If we’re gonna do animation, we have to utilize hand-drawn animation,’” Platt said. “That’s the old-school way, where every cel, every frame, is hand-drawn . . . And so, the animated characters in our sequence are executed in almost the same way that they were executed 54 years ago.”
“There’s an expectation of delivering a set piece like that [when making a Mary Poppins film],” Platt said. “But like the whole film, the great challenge for us was finding the right [balance] between touchstones of the original, and then taking you into a fresh story, and an imaginative world that suited our story.”
More sophisticated technology also helped the movie build upon effects that come straight from the original—as in the number featuring hand-drawn animation, which finds Mary Poppins and her new young wards leaping into a porcelain bowl to help a painted figure fix a broken carriage wheel. At one point, one of the Banks children is able to remove his hat and trade it with an animated character. A trick like that would never have been possible in 1964. “It‘s seamless and quite extraordinary,” Platt said. “These are the details you have to really look at. It offers up a visual feast, and a story told in a way that it never has been before.”
While Mary Poppins Returns takes plenty of cues from its predecessor, however, it also brings its own unique aesthetic. That’s partially because Marshall gave production designer John Myhre permission to cultivate his own look for the film, taking inspiration from P.L. Travers’s original Mary Poppins books and 1930s London, when the story is set.
He also designed an entire dance hall for rehearsals, complete with mirrored walls and a few props—a setting that helped the film’s greater vision come together.
“We first discuss the idea of what a set or a musical number might take place in, come up with ideas, visuals, do some sketches,” Myhre said, explaining the process. “Eventually, [we] do some very simple models. And when Rob is feeling comfortable about it, we tape it out full-size on a dance floor—a big, sprung dance floor. And that’s the time it really comes alive.”
The film’s lengthy animated sequence comes partway through the movie, but its live-action elements were the first thing Marshall shot. In total, Platt said, the sequence took roughly 18 months to complete. On those early shooting days, actors delivered their performances in a totally green space; reference dancers dressed in green, as well as physical set pieces called proxies representing the animated elements that would eventually appear in the scene, helped the cast execute their exact choreography. Eventually, the actors had to pull the moves off on their own.
But sometimes, creating movie magic doesn’t require a green screen. When Dick van Dyke showed up on set to film his guest appearance, the cast and crew got incredibly emotional, according to Platt. The actor told the team that the set’s atmosphere recalled that of the original film. “To have that crew and cast hear him say that was, as you would imagine, a very moving experience,” Platt said. His scene had been staged so that stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda could help the then-92-year-old actor onto a desk—but apparently, his joints are as spry as his spirit. Van Dyke surprised everyone when he managed to jump up without any assistance.
“He danced completely on his own, and it was quite fantastic, as you would imagine,” Platt said. “And then, the last unexpected thing that happened with Dick was he gives this beautiful monologue, where he recounts the story of when the grown-up Michael Banks was a little boy. And when he finished that monologue on the first take, nobody called cut. The cameras just kept rolling, and we looked over at the monitor where Rob Marshall, the director, was—and like, ‘Why aren’t we calling cut?’ And Rob had tears streaming down his cheek and, literally, he couldn’t say the word ‘cut’ because he was so moved.”