“There’s nowhere to go but up.” Those are the words Angela Lansbury and the cast of “Mary Poppins Returns” send you home with at the end of Rob Marshall’s sequel to the beloved 54-year-old Disney classic, and they do a good job of illustrating why the film is, perhaps unexpectedly, a bona fide best picture Oscar player this year.
The movie musical landed in the race this week with guild and Academy screenings, tastemakers and more, hoping for what would rightly be considered the impossible: an embrace. But Marshall and company can breathe a sigh of relief because it’s going over like gangbusters. There was applause throughout a Producers Guild screening on Wednesday. A lengthy standing ovation greeted the film’s director and cast at an all-guild screening on Saturday. On Sunday, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got a look and erupted when 91-year-old Dick Van Dyke hit the screen. They also met the film’s talent with a standing ovation.
“Does that not feel like the right movie at the right time,” moderator David Friendly said at the start of the PGA’s Q&A session. Indeed, there isn’t much in the Oscar hunt this year that feels like a salve in the way “Mary Poppins Returns” does. Maybe “Green Book,” Universal’s feel-good race relations drama, is the only thing that comes close. And it’s not a saccharine display; it’s earned emotion that directly feeds off the zeitgeist.
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“It’s a very complicated time we’re living in,” Marc Platt, one of the film’s producers, said at the PGA event. “It’s so valuable to export this to the world at this moment in time, when we wish for more optimism and hope, which we all had as kids.”
Given the political climate both in the States and across the pond in the United Kingdom, that sentiment reads deeper than platitude. The best picture landscape is full of fabulous craft from artists who are, collectively, assembling an exceptional awards slate. But from the heartbreak of “A Star Is Born” to the infuriating analysis of “Vice” to the barbed atmosphere of “The Favourite,” there just aren’t many options for those voters looking for a bit of an emotional respite. “Mary Poppins Returns” fits the bill and then some.
The original “Mary Poppins” was the first film Marshall saw as a child and it always stayed with him. If a sequel based on author P.L. Travers’ other novels was ever going to be made, he wanted to be the one to do it. “I wanted to protect the original film,” he said at the PGA screening.
He and producer John DeLuca also always wanted to create an original musical, after previously adapting Broadway hits like “Chicago,” “Nine” and “Into the Woods.” Travers’ works, however, are very episodic and lack much of a narrative at all. So they had to find their story.
The books were written in the 1930s and you can feel the Great Depression flowing through them. Marshall and company were keen to utilize that setting, and given that Walt Disney set the original “Mary Poppins” in 1910, there was an opportunity to catch up with the Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), 25 years on.
Emily Blunt was tapped for the daunting task of following Julie Andrews’ iconic (and Oscar-winning) performance. She told the all-guild audience, which was packed with Screen Actors Guild members, that she was terrified shooting music-and-dance sequences that incorporated animation that, obviously, wasn’t fully contextualized for her on set. But that’s where the two-month rehearsal process came into play. Marshall wanted Blunt and the other actors to do it over and over again “until it’s in your body,” Blunt said.
Marshall met with jack-of-all-trades Lin-Manuel Miranda in New York, in between shows of Broadway hit “Hamilton,” to entice him with the role of Jack, the lamp-lighter who joins Poppins and the new Banks children on their many adventures. Miranda was eager to participate in something where he was just the actor, not a writer, and of course his musical chops fit like a glove. The rehearsal stretch was even longer than that of “Hamilton,” he said at the all-guild screening.
Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, meanwhile, saw the potential inherent in the material at this moment in history. “They wanted to be part of sending the message of this film out into the world right now,” Marshall told members of the Producers Guild. And by the way, even with a single show-stopping scene, don’t be surprised if Streep lands her 22nd Oscar nomination for this.
Production was a bear. Not only was Marshall conjuring a story almost from whole cloth, but also, of course, he was working with writers on new songs that would have their own sizable shoes to fill. He was also insistent that hand-drawn animation be a part of the film, drawing on the nostalgia of the original. Marshall and his team met with animators from Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Animation Studios on cooking up those elements. Some even came out of retirement for the opportunity to take part.
One sequence in particular, which takes place on the surface of a cracked ceramic bowl, brings all of this together beautifully. It blends the hand-drawn work with contemporary elements like three-dimensional backgrounds and computer-generated imagery, all interacting with live action actors and original compositions with choreography on top of it all. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence.
Indeed, the craft on the whole is stunning. Costume designer Sandy Powell may well win her fourth Oscar for this film rather than “The Favourite,” another contender she has in the hunt. The production design and photography, courtesy of Marshall regulars John Myhre and Dion Beebe, respectively, really grows the whole enterprise on the screen, and naturally the film editing is crucial on a musical like this. Wyatt Smith’s work within the various numbers and in pushing the entire story forward is wonderful. Marc Shaiman’s original score soars, and Disney will be submitting two songs to the Academy for consideration: the lively “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and the lower-key “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”
And in the marketplace? Movie-goers are obviously flocking to films like “La La Land” and “A Star Is Born.” Musical storytelling is part of the fabric of modern cinema, which Marshall can take credit for in part due to his Oscar-winning “Chicago” 16 years ago, which helped kick in the door along with Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” Expect them to flock to this one as well. “Mary Poppins Returns” will be a massive hit, which will drive the point home all the more: Audiences want a movie like this right now. Critics, even the most cynical of them (whether they admit it or not), want a movie like this right now. Surely, Oscar voters want a movie like this right now.
Well, they’re going to get it.