If you’re familiar with Mary Poppins, you’re in for a treat. If you’re not, familiar you will be.
Practical British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is the writer of a best-selling children’s book, but the royalties are running out and she hasn’t written anything since. She has been relentlessly pursued by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for twenty years to make her book into a film, but she dreads having the theme park movie mogul “sanitize” her life’s work for happy pop audiences, especially for any elements to be animated. Will the two of them find common ground, or will Mary Poppins remain only on the written page? Spoiler: they make a movie.
There’s a feeling of recovering a lost childhood; Disney is seen by Travers as the boy who never grew up – Peter Pan reference FTW! – while Travers appears to be woman who forgot she was ever a little girl. The film suggests the two need to meet somewhere in the middle socially, connecting briefly before finally collaborating (not a spoiler). There’s also an issue with addiction and a bit of social commentary on those as well, so this isn’t exactly all family-friendly. While there are genuine fun moments in the film showing the influences of Mary Poppins songs and theatrical elements, this film seems like it would have been better suited as a Disney special or an extra on a Blu-ray release of Mary Poppins rather than a vehicle for awards season.
The biggest accusation the Mouse House had to endure over this fictionalized documentary are the parts where people who knew Mr. Disney claim the man was certainly no Tom Hanks. Whether or not the production itself intended this as a platform to show their founder in a more favorable light, a great cast and a clever flashback mechanism tell a story of tragedy and inspiration. With Ms. Thompson and Mr. Hanks touted as headliners – and turning in their usual above-average performances – two other actors steal the show. Colin Farrell plays the author’s father and inspiration for many character elements in Mary Poppins, while Paul Giamatti provides a lifeline to the visiting author as her infectiously always-positive American driver.
This seemed an odd choice for awards season. It’s a very specialized kind of film, a borderline mockumentary fictionalized to tell just a particular story. While it’s fun to assume that Walt Disney was as lovable as Tom Hanks plays him, it’s hard not to see this as much more of a marketing ploy. That said, the story is affecting and has the requisite positive outcome that all such Disney films conclude with, but it does ask and answer some interesting questions about the what inspires a writer and a story is interpreted by others. While not for everyone, it’s a can’t-miss for fans of a spoonful of sugar being practically perfect in every way.
(a three-skull recommendation out of four)