In her will P.L. Travers stated that another movie version was not to be made. How is it possible for Disney to make and distribute Mary Poppins Returns based on the work of P.L. Travers when the author specifically denied Disney from making a sequel?
Disney were keen to make a follow-up to Mary Poppins as early as 1982 but the movie ended up in a glorious legal mess because of legal clauses on both sides that required creative agreement from both Disney and P.L. Travers herself.
Former Disney vice president of production Marty Kaplan describes how this deadlock resulted in the sequel film being put into limbo for decades until her death (and agreement from her family and the trustees of her 'literary estate') allowed Disney to regain the rights to exercise full creative control.
It was 1988, and I’d been a vice president at Disney for two years. From the time I got there, studio president Jeffrey Katzenberg had wanted to make a sequel to Mary Poppins, and I was assigned to develop a script.
But as the new movie, Saving Mr. Banks, does not depict, Mrs. Travers intensely disliked Walt Disney’s 1964 version. And since she still controlled the rights to her Poppins books, my efforts at getting a sequel off the ground were entirely theoretical. But in 1987, when Mrs. Travers was 87, Walt’s nephew Roy had been approached by writer Brian Sibley, an acquaintance of his and a longtime friend of hers. Sibley told Disney she was open to doing a second movie at the studio, and within a few months their agent closed a deal, but she extracted a steep creative price: Unlike every other features deal at the studio, this one gave away control of the story, settings, and characters to the author of the underlying material. To her.
We tried in vain to persuade her to reconsider her veto of our pitch, so hers was the direction we took. Five months later, Sibley’s treatment of the movie came in. I returned to her sitting room, again bearing whiskey, for the second of what would be five visits, for me to hear her notes on Sibley’s approach, and for them to hear the studio’s notes. I was sure she would dislike our notes — they were all requests for changes — and indeed she did.
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 her constraints
Her last will and testament didn't explicitly "forbid" Disney from making a sequel, nor did she have the legal grounds to do so. Her original licence rights with Disney from the 1960s would have certainly included the right for them to make additional films based on her books, all of which they optioned. No-one else was going to make a film and her goal seems to have been to make a film rather than to block it outright.
PL Travers published six children’s books featuring Mary Poppins between 1934 15 and 1982. In 1960 she and a family company entered into an agreement with Walt Disney Productions under which they agreed to grant Walt Disney Productions an assignment of the right to make motion picture adaptations of any of the Mary Poppins books (subject to conditions as to approval of their content) and the sole and exclusive motion picture rights in the books, together with what would nowadays be called ‘merchandising’ rights. The rights assigned did not include dramatic, radio or television rights, but PL Travers undertook not to “exploit or otherwise deal with the dramatic, radio or television rights” in the books “except through and by arrangement with” Walt Disney Productions “upon such terms and conditions as may hereafter be mutually agreed”
A quick look at her will (as discussed in the legal ruling above) shows that she was anticipating that her other books would eventually be made into sequel films and made provision for how the proceeds would be distributed.
Any payments received by my Trustees in respect of or [sic] any future commercial production or exploitation in any form whatsoever of any books I have written (including any sequel to the film “Mary Poppins”) shall be held by my Trustees UPON TRUST to distribute in the following manner:
So what did her will explicitly forbid?
The answer is that Travers was adamant that any stage show should be based on accurate retelling of her books rather than the Disney film (which she hated with a vengeance). Disney, in turn, insisted that due to a clause in their original contract (that any production that launched in the West End or Broadway would be linked to their original film copyright after 21 days) meant that that any production had to be loyal to their film.
Although her will repeated this concern, ultimately Travers' death and a settled legal action between Disney and her trustees meant that a production, which ended up being a fusion of the books and iconic images from the film, was able to be launched in 2004.