“Mary Poppins” was a huge film for Disney in 1964, winning five Oscars and finally realising a promise Walt Disney himself made to his daughters, to bring the much loved book by PL Travers to the screen.
The way this normally works is that studios wave huge amounts of money at authors strapped for cash. They wine, dine and tell them how wonderful their work is, get the contract signed and then proceed to do whatever the studio deems fit to make a quick buck.
The film is a recreation of this wooing process, on this occasion most definitely not following the usual template. Mrs Travers (Emma Thompson) retains the rights to the book, a fictional story with many elements dear to her, a troubled childhood inextricably entwined within the pages, a creation she cannot and will not let go.
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) will try anything to mollify the authors concerns, he has made a promise to bring Mary Poppin’s to life. To this end he has deployed highly skilled songwriters, Robert and Richard Sherman (B K Novak and Jason Schwartzman respectively) loosely corralled by Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford).
Mrs Travers finally arrives in California at her agents bequest, after pleading with her to discuss selling the rights, money or lack thereof being the motivating factor. Mrs Travers, “Pamela” or even “Pam”, as Walt calls her much to her displeasure, is installed at the Beverly Hills hotel and looked after by the friendly allocated chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti).
Mrs Travers is bristly, combative and frankly a royal pain in the ass, insisting all conversations are recorded and declaring “everything” as being wrong. Whether the situation can be turned around is the meat of the story, which moves between present day and a heightened parallel story of Travers early childhood life in Australia.
Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson play her mother and father in a semi real Australian setting where the tousle haired young daughter is allowed to dream whilst her father drinks himself into oblivion. This origin story helps to explain how Travers became the force she was and her displeasure at anything “frivolous”, the very antipathy of California and especially Disney’s view of the world.
The film is based on facts and whilst a Disney studio produced movie, it appears to hold true to the main facts with a little judicial airbrushing as one would expect. Travers was adamant this would be no musical, there was to be no animation and should respect the gravitas of the story. History can record how well those conditions were met.
Emma Thompson gets most screen time and does an excellent job in making Travers thoroughly unlike-able, dispatching withering put downs without a hint of remorse, almost too good on occasions. Fortunately the film reaches a tipping point just before all empathy is lost. Hanks is as reliable as ever, portraying a broad facsimile of the avuncular type character Disney liked to project, yet showing glimpses of the ruthlessness he also possessed.
Whitford, Novak and Schwartzman capture the crazy free wheeling creativity of the time, dedicated yet frustrated at every turn, as the author impolitely declines each proposal or song.
The Australian segment is well played albeit with a rosy hue, it takes up arguably too much screen time, distracting from the present day. Obviously what happened in the past has relevance, but on occasion the consequences and metaphors are overdone and could have been sketched more quickly. Farrell does mischievous, likeable but ultimately tragic better than anyone and if anything, does not need as much screen-time to get the message across.
Some of Travers real life has been glossed over but she remained true to her beliefs, ultimately making for a better film at the time of release. The movie builds to a decent emotional pay-off and remains well worth watching. Somehow the heart of the film has been lost, preventing the movie reaching classic status, arguably by diluting the main story. However, by aiming high, even by failing to hit the target, this remains a highly enjoyable watch.
Overall a good film that can be enjoyed by a wide audience.
Whilst not quite living up to pre-release high expectations, despite excellent work from Thompson and solid turn from Hanks, this remains a recommended watch.