Emily Blunt decided not to watch the original Mary Poppins while filming the sequel because she did not want to be intimidated by musical legend Julie Andrews' performance.
After 54 years of waiting, Mary Poppins Returns sees everyone's favourite magical nanny, this time played by Blunt, fly back to the Banks house on Cherry Tree Lane to help the family deal with a tragedy.
Blunt jumped at the chance of playing the much-loved character from her childhood, but wary of the deep attachment many have to the original, she decided to refrain from re-watching during her preparation. "I waited until we wrapped," she tells press, including The National, in London. "I had memories of it, but I didn't have memories of the details of what Julie did, and I think that probably was a good thing, because I didn't want to be intimidated and I already had such a clear instinct of what I wanted to go with from the book that I didn't want to compromise at that point.
“Nobody wants to see me or anybody do a bad impersonation of Julie Andrews. It’s sacrilege to even try. I knew if I was going to take her on, it would have to be my own version of her.”
Blunt was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance before the film was even released. Predictably, the rumour mill has been in overdrive that this may be a sign that an Oscar nomination will be next.
But when asked about the Academy Award whispers, the 35-year-old was quick to play them down. “Let’s not. One step at a time guys,” she says.
Andrews, who won an Academy Award for her Mary Poppins performance, opted not to be in the sequel, but is said to have been very supportive of its production. “She has seen the film and wrote the most beautiful email about it,” Blunt revealed. “It was so moving.”
While Andrews decided not to return, eagle-eyed viewers will still notice a rather familiar face from the first film. Dick Van Dyke, whose much-parodied cockney accent is almost as famous as the film itself, makes an all-singing all-dancing comeback right at the end.
Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a modern version of Van Dyke's chimney sweep called Jack. The 38-year-old American actor is best known for creating and starring in the Broadway smash hit Hamilton.
Aware of the inevitable scrutiny on his accent as an American, Miranda “chained himself” to a dialect coach and listened to music hall recordings from the 1930s to ensure his cockney voice sounded authentic. “Dick Van Dyke’s accent is so singular that we are still talking about it 54 years later,” he says, laughing. “I knew that my accent would be scrutinised and so all you can do is jump in and find your own way.”
As a self-confessed "musical theatre nerd", Mary Poppins was played on repeat in Miranda's household growing up. "I spent many hours dancing with Dick Van Dyke and penguins," he recalled. "It was a one-sided relationship until last year."
The all-star cast includes Blunt's The Devil Wears Prada co-star Meryl Streep, as well as Colin Firth, Julie Walters and nonagenarian Angela Lansbury. Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw play grown-up Jane and Michael Banks. Michael is now a recently widowed father of three, struggling to keep a roof over his children's heads. "In so many ways this second movie was connected to the first in ways that helped you feel safe," says Mortimer.
Mortimer's Jane Banks predecessor Karen Dotrice, now 63, also makes a special cameo, although she is likely only to be recognisable to diehard fans.
Set in 1930s London during the “Great Slump” rather than in the 1910s like the original, director Rob Marshall says he felt the choice of era would resonate well with audiences today.
Despite the references to the first film, Marshall was keen to make a sequel rather than a remake to pay homage rather than copy the treasured original. He returned to the original Mary Poppins books written by P L Travers for inspiration. "I wouldn't want to remake the original," he says. "It's too perfect."
Mary Poppins Returns is in cinemas across the UAE from December 27