The mandate for “Mary Poppins Returns” came straight from Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”): It had to look “London-y,” but also “dipped in reality.” That’s because, unlike Walt Disney’s idyllic world of 1910 in the original movie, the London here took place in 1934, the era of the Depression, or “The Slump,” as the British called it.
“When I first heard the opening song, ‘Underneath the Lovely London Sky,’ I saw this as a love letter to London,” said Myhre, but with a gritty twist in accordance with director Rob Marshall’s vision of becoming much more colorful with the return of the beloved nanny (Emily Blunt).
We glimpse London coming awake out of the fog, gliding by Parliament, Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, through some parks, before making our way to the familiar Cherry Tree Lane. “And we embraced London in the winter with the gray sky,” added Myhre. “That became our real world and it was a nice contrast to the colorful adventures with Mary Poppins.
“And then our goal was, by the end of the movie, to have the Banks family more optimistic with that beautiful spring fair [sung to the joyful finale, ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’].”
courtesy of Disney
Myhre immersed himself in London of 1934, particularly paintings of the embankment and news footage of passersby. However, Marshall wanted the designers to put their own spin on “Poppins.” The first thing was a slight alteration to the Banks neighborhood of Cherry Tree Lane.
“We wanted to bring down the scale,” Myhre said. “It’s not three-story, opulent, with lightly plastered facades. We made them two-story buildings, we brought in some brick, which was a little more middle class. It was our movie but still respectful to the original.”
But because it was a clash of authenticity and fantasy, every set was a mixture of practical builds, special effects, stunt pieces, and the start of VFX enhancement. “That bathroom set had to be built eight feet off the ground so the kids and Mary could really slide into that bathtub, and for Mary to reach into the sink and pull out those lovely items,” said Myhre.
One of the most daring and difficult sequences was the Topsy set featuring Mary’s eccentric, bohemian cousin (played by Meryl Streep). They literally built an upside down room in Topsy’s fix-it shop. “We wanted to create a big space where you could see all the things that people brought her that that they loved,” Myhre said. “A torn painting, a statue with an arm knocked off, a musical instrument.”
But the set needed to look interesting from both ceiling and floor perspectives, and functionally interactive during the boisterous “Turning Turtle” dance number. “So it all became about getting them down from the floor to the ceiling, and it had spinning chandeliers and ladders on book cases that roll, upside down spiral staircases, and banked walls of glass,” the production designer said.
The two most challenging sequences to design were for the music hall inside the Royal Doulton bowl and the “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” showstopper atop a greenhouse. The first required experiments with scale and positioning for the animation and choreography, and the latter necessitated being able to cut from a street on location to a street built on stage and then back again.
Courtesy of Disney
“It was an interesting learning curve for a group of people that had only done live-action working with people who had only done animation,” said Myhre about the music hall sequence. “It was all built and painted green, such as the carriage that they slide down in. Interaction with the actors was very important. Every time the animation team drew a new character, I would blow them up full size so we could have them on the stage the day we shot.”
Meanwhile, all through the “Trip” number, it was not only difficult keeping up with the dancers, but also coping with the idea of having a dance sequence with bikes on top of the greenhouse. “So suddenly the greenhouse had to be built in such a say to accommodate the dancing, with the construction of a 200 x 250-foot stone dance floor that was springy,” said Myhre.
Initially, they thought they were making a wonderful, little children’s film. “And within a month, we started getting into it and it became the most complicated movie I ever made,” Myhre said.