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The Secret Behind Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns

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Flying back onto the screen after 54 years, Mary Poppins Returns (2018)is a sequel to the 1964 Disney original Mary Poppins, a film that to this day is one of the most adored, acclaimed, and award-winning movies of all time. 

It’s not very typical to see a sequel emerge a full 54 years after the original. But then again, Mary Poppins is not your typical film, is it? Parents and children (and now even grandparents and great-grandparents) around the globe have continued to enjoy this film year after year. In fact, if you were to stop what you’re doing right now and head out onto the street to poll strangers, I’d venture a guess that it’d be some time before you found someone who hasn’t seen Mary Poppins. It’s that iconic!

What makes this movie so special? Sure, it had wonderful acting from stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It mixed live action sequences with animated characters and backgrounds, which was incredibly innovative for its time. And of course, the film shares a wonderful message about the importance of family. But there’s something else that makes Mary Poppins so special. Something that Walt Disney and his team did so, so well:

It redefined the magic of storytelling. 

What’s the first thing that popped into your head when you saw the name Mary Poppinsat the start of this post? If you’re like 99% of the population, it was a melody that’s been cemented in your brain since childhood:

“It’s Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-doc-ious. Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious.”

Am I right? Without thinking you began humming the tune. This was no mistake. From day one, Walt Disney wanted Mary Poppins to redefine what it meant to tell a story, using the power of song to drive the narrative, as opposed to the usual character dialog. 

Think about it! What makes this such an incredible film is that it has a story that’s driven by the music. Without the iconic soundtrack, there really isn’t much of a storyline in the film. And there is certainly no way we would be excited about a sequel coming out 54 years later. While it wasn’t the first film to employ music as the primary driver of the story, it was the first to do it on such a high level. To create song after song that, even 50+ years later, can be recalled and sung by millions across the globe, is quite an achievement.

With Mary Poppins, Walt Disney showed the world that there are any number of ways to tell a story., and that the magic of storytelling is not restricted to any one medium. While we tend to pigeonhole storytelling as something we either read or speak, Disney proved that if the story is magical enough, you can use any medium you like. 

At a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Chef tells their story through their food, a story which you absorb through smell and through taste. And fashion designers tell their stories through their garments, a story which you see on a model and feel in the fabric. 

Like Walt, if you have a story to tell, your means to tell it is only limited by your imagination.

So, how did Disney come up with the plan to tell the story of Mary Poppins through music?

He actually owes quite a bit of thanks to the Sherman Brothers. Long-time Disney songwriting collaborators, Richard and Robert Sherman were Walt’s right-hand men for many years, having previously worked together on Disney classics such as The Parent Trap and The Sword and the Stone

As Walt began envisioning a new classic in Mary Poppins, he reached out to the Shermans in order to get their advice. He provided them each with a copy of P.J. Travers’ original book Mary Poppins and asked them to envision how they might bring this story to life. When the group reconvened weeks later, all three had earmarked the exact same 13 chapters of the book that they believed would work best to tell the story in a film adaptation (I guess working in close quarters for that many years created a real shared creative mind among the three of them)!

After the trio fleshed out a plan to make music the star of these 13 chapters, Walt left the meeting with a simple “Yup. That’ll work.”. And as anyone who worked with Disney could tell you, this was his highest praise. That’s all you needed to hear to know that Walt was satisfied.

And with that, the Shermans knew they were on to something special!

The brothers got to work on the film’s soundtrack, going on to write some of its most iconic songs, including “Feed the Birds”, “It’s a Jolly Holiday”, “Chim, Chim Cher-ee”, and the classic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. Needless to say, it became one of the most lauded soundtracks in film history, netting the pair many awards, including one Academy Award for Best Original Score, and another for Best Original Song, which went to the delightful “Chim, Chim, Cher-ee”.

Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers broke the mold when they created Mary Poppins. And it’s remained an iconic piece of pop culture ever since.  

In 2005, I had the honor of inviting Richard Sherman and Julie Andrews to Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. The two graciously accepted and ended up contributing two of the most memorable moments of the entire affair. The first was when Julie unveiled the Golden Horse on the Disney Carousel (gold being the traditional gift for a 50th anniversary, after all). The second was when Richard took to the stage in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle to play Walt’s favorite song of all time, “Feed the Birds.” An incredibly emotional performance, it was made extra special by an event that could only be described as magic. As Richard approached the first chorus, a white dove appeared out of nowhere and began to fly down from the sky. It then landed directly on Richard’s piano, and perched itself there for the remainder of the song. 

A white dove flying down during “Feed the Birds, the favorite song of Walt Disney, during a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Disneyland! In that moment, I think we could all hear Walt: “Yup. That’ll work.”

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