Mary Poppins Comes Back | Disney’s lost 1980s sequel

Mary Poppins Julie Andrews
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Five years on from Mary Poppins Returns, we look at the story of when Disney tried to make a Mary Poppins sequel in the 1980s, co-written by author PL Travers and starring a returning Julie Andrews.

Next year sees the 60th anniversary of Mary Poppins. The movie made Julie Andrews a star, winning her a Best Actress Oscar on her film debut, and further won universal acclaim from critics and audiences on its original release on 1964. So, why did it take the studio more than 54 years to release the sequel, 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns?

The original was a long-held passion project for Walt Disney himself, and he spent more than 20 years lobbying creator PL Travers to sell him the film rights to the Poppins stories. That particular film story has been the subject of various documentaries, and even a Disneyfied biopic, 2013’s Saving Mr Banks, which Simon covered in a recent episode of the Film Stories podcast, linked below:

What the film doesn’t get into is Disney’s failure to produce a sequel the following year, owing to Travers’ dislike of the original. Indeed, she was open about her reluctance to collaborate on any further instalments.

Travers was a prolific letter writer, so there’s plenty of record of her opinions on this. In a 1966 reply to an academic who sought her opinion of the film, she said it was “not very like the books and misses a great deal of meaning but thanks to Julie Andrews something of the integrity (dare I say that?) of Mary Poppins comes through.”

She added: “But if Disney plans to do a sequel – I hope it won’t but the contract makes it possible – I must be silent for I would want to again prevent the worst happening and don’t want to work with a prickly porcupine. He would rather I were dead. All his authors up till now have been dead and out of copyright and he is cross that I haven’t had the grace to oblige him.”

As it happened, Disney passed away later in 1966, having wrote in his final annual report for the company’s shareholders that they would not be making a sequel. In the subsequent restructuring and refocusing of Walt Disney Pictures, Mary Poppins 2 remained in development hell. Nevertheless, the film did well on cinema re-releases, and then on home video, so it was really only a matter of time before a potential follow-up reared its head once more.

A spoonful of sugar

A 1960s movie tie-in edition collecting Travers’ books Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back

In the mid-1980s, Jeffrey Katzenberg became chairman of Walt Disney Studios. We’ve written before about Katzenberg’s influence over Disney during his tenure and the studio’s overall reversal of fortune. And according to Disney’s vice-president Marty Kaplan, it was Katzenberg who voiced the idea of making a new Mary Poppins movie in 1986.

His idea was much like the sequel we eventually got in Mary Poppins Returns – a story about the Banks children’s children, who are visited by their parents’ practically perfect childhood nanny when the family once again hits dire straits 25 years later.

However, Travers still controlled the rights, and she had remained staunchly opposed to a sequel in the intervening years.

Then writer Brian Sibley came along. Sibley had been in correspondence with Travers since he interviewed her for a Walt Disney biography in the 1970s and they’d since become friends. When she told him about the latest idea for Mary Poppins 2 one Sunday, he said it was a pity there couldn’t be a new film.

In a 2013 interview with BBC News, Sibley recalled: “Pamela said ‘Oh I could only agree if I could do it on my own terms. I’d have to work with someone I trust.’ And she paused. ‘If it were you dear that would be different.’”

The writer duly wrote to another correspondent from the Disney biography, Walt’s nephew and then-head-honcho at the studio, Roy E. Disney, to let him know there was a chance of making the sequel. Within a fortnight, the film was back in active development.

Katzenberg and Kaplan made a trip to Travers’ London home especially to pitch the idea of a sequel about the next generation of the Banks family. The author was ready with a counter-pitch that she intended to co-write with Sibley.

Set one year after the original film and named after the second novel in the series, Mary Poppins Comes Back would find the Banks family in dire financial straits due to some missing documents. At risk of losing their home, Jane and Michael Banks call on Mary Poppins again, eventually finding her at the end of their kite.

As dramatized in Saving Mr Banks, Travers had firm thoughts about the character. She was known to dislike the label of “creator”, insisting she “discovered” Mary Poppins instead. And her stipulations for the sequel ranged from the nanny’s wardrobe (she must never wear red) to an outright ban on casting American actors (especially not Dick Van Dyke).

According to Kaplan in a 2013 column for The Jewish Journal, her only point of agreement with the Disney execs was that Julie Andrews should return.

Sibley and Travers wrote a treatment for the film, drawing on the original novel, the sequel of the same name, and the third book, Mary Poppins Opens The Door. Characters who only appeared briefly in the first film were revisited and reimagined, and others were incorporated, including Topsy Turvy and the Balloon Lady. And Bert was replaced by Barney, Bert’s jack-of-all-trades brother who sells ice cream in the park.

Saving Mr Banks. Again.

Stringing together some more of the short-story escapades of the source material, the sequel treatment is inevitably something of a rehash of the first film’s narrative. It even stipulates that the Banks family have simply forgotten the lessons they learned last time.

The big emotional statement of Saving Mr Banks is what its title suggests – Mary Poppins is about the dad character. This is borne out in the original proposal for Mary Poppins Comes Back too, which Sibley made available online in a 2011 blog post.

Upon taking a valuable but damaged vase to be repaired by Topsy Turvy, Michael finds a wind-up drummer toy inside. When he claims it, Mary Poppins tells him it belongs to another little boy.

That boy, of course, was the young George Banks. The story pivots on him rediscovering his inner child along with the toy, his contagious joy making everyone in the bank burst into song and dance. Investors are inspired to save the bank because it’s such a jolly place, and all’s well that ends well.

Sibley travelled to LA to sit in on script conferences with Disney. Travers gave further notes but was unreceptive to the studio’s notes. Over time, the pair worked up a revised treatment. Dated 25th July 1989, the cover page for the second treatment reiterates a couple of Travers’ character notes and includes a note you can somehow imagine Emma Thompson performing:

“Mrs Travers is concerned that it should be made clear to Julie Andrews that she will be provided with a stand-in for those sequences involving stunts such as flying.”

This may speak to Andrews’ reluctance to return at this point in development. Some reports have it that she was briefly considering retirement from screen acting, but casting would have been a stumbling block for the sequel anyway.

With or without Andrews, Travers was against Van Dyke appearing, and all of the other returning characters would have to be recast for the belated sequel anyway. We don’t have many details about alternative suggestions, but Sibley recalls meeting with an unnamed executive who felt Michael Jackson was right for the part of Barney the ice-cream seller.

Development wore on into the 1990s, and following a review of the project by Disney, Mystic Pizza screenwriters Perry and Randy Howze were assigned to write further drafts. Mary Poppins Comes Back was finally shelved again after a changing-of-the-guard at the top of Disney.

As Kaplan put it in The Jewish Journal: “Seven years, and many treatments, scripts, notes, and a couple of writers after my association with Mary Poppins had begun, the studio abandoned the project – it was just too hard to work within [Travers’] constraints – and she sold the rights to a stage version instead.”

Travers sold the theatrical rights to Cameron Mackintosh in 1993, on the condition that the creators were English and none of the people who worked on the Disney movie were involved. She passed away in 1996 and went so far as to include this condition in her last will and testament.

Where lost things go

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, wearing (gasp) RED!

Launched in 2004, the Olivier-award-winning stage musical adaptation of Mary Poppins features some of the Sherman Brothers’ classic songs, thanks to an agreement between Mackintosh and Disney Theatrical Productions, but remains separate from the film. Sibley has also wryly noted that some of the original story from the unproduced Mary Poppins Come Back script made its way into the play, written for the stage by Julian Fellowes.

A while after the success of Saving Mr Banks, Disney came back around to the idea of a new Mary Poppins movie. It reunited many of the people who worked on its 2014 adaptation of Into The Woods – director Rob Marshall, producers John DeLuca and Marc Platt, and star Emily Blunt, who picks up the talking umbrella from Andrews. With the Travers’ estate approval, Mary Poppins Returns was finally greenlit as a $130-million budget tentpole for Christmas 2018.

More than 30 years after he first suggested it, Katzenberg’s pitch proved the most natural foundation for the sequel. It’s a film about the Banks’ children’s children, starring Ben Whishaw as the grown-up Michael Banks and Emily Mortimer as his sister Jane.

However, there are also similarities with the Mary Poppins Comes Back treatments. Missing financial documents are a major part of the story and Mr Banks’ vase evolves into a priceless bowl owned by Michael’s late wife.

A version of Topsy also appears, played by another Into The Woods star, “With Meryl Streep” (at her most With Meryl Streep!). And although Van Dyke takes over the role of Mr Dawes Jr as a nod to the original, Bert is replaced by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cockney lamplighter Jack.

Julie Andrews graciously declined to return for a cameo in the sequel, saying “it’s Emily’s show”. It’s speculated that she was offered the role of the Balloon Lady, eventually played by another Disney icon, Angela Lansbury. Brilliantly though, Andrews lent her voice to a mythical sea creature called the Karathen in Aquaman, a film which happened to open in cinemas worldwide the same week as the Poppins sequel and out-grossed it by many leagues.

Mary Poppins Returns did just fine at the worldwide box office though, grossing almost $350m. And since its Christmas Day UK TV premiere on BBC One in 2021, it’s become a fixture of the TV schedules alongside the original.

Marshall and Returns screenwriter David Magee reteamed on this year’s Little Mermaid remake. While promoting that film, Marshall has left the door open for a third Mary Poppins film, telling Yahoo! Movies UK: “P.L. Travers wrote eight books altogether and so there’s a lot of material to work from and that’s why it was fun to sort of re-imagine and create a sequel.”

As we say, if there’s any movement on that, maybe it will be announced around next year’s 60th anniversary. But if it’s going to happen at all, don’t bank on it taking another 54 years. Like the end credits of Saving Mr Banks, we’ll leave the last word on Disney and Mary Poppins to the archive recordings of Mrs Travers…

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