Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman, B J Novak
Running Time: 125mins
The lowdown: All right ladies an’ gents! Step right up as Essential Media, BBC Films and Walt Disney Studios present for your viewing pleasure a less amicable Australian-Anglo-American partnership. Heading-up an all-star cast, Emma Thompson is terrific as Mary Poppins author P.L Travers and Tom Hanks dazzles as Disney. The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock skilfully explores the battle to bring the no-nonsense Super Nanny to the big screen. There’s only one word for it…
The full verdict: Who doesn’t love Mary Poppins? The Oscar winning blend of charming performances, animated antics and memorable songs has become a seasonal staple and a family favourite.
But it could literally have been a different story.
Knowing the outcome of Pamela Lyndon Travers fight for her rights to Mary doesn’t detract from the enjoyment to be had at this brilliant biopic. How much of it is true is debatable but since Travers insisted on recording every script meeting there is sufficient evidence at least to back up her interactions with the stunned studio staff.
In 1961, after 20 years fending off Disney’s advances, Travers’ dwindling finances force her from her London home to Los Angeles. Partially to consider their terms but mostly to stop her treasured creation getting a mawkish makeover from the Magic Kingdom.
From the second her plane lands, the studio is determined to court Travers. But Uncle Walt’s wooing techniques are hardly subtle. Filling her hotel room with plush toys, and employing upbeat limo driver Ralph (Giamatti in a small, but pivotal role) to chauffeur her around the sweltering Californian countryside only seems to strengthens her resolve.
She rejects genial screenwriter Don Dagradi’s (Whitford) every suggestion and is initially horrified at the toe-tapping tunes of the Sherman brothers, Richard (Schwartzman) and Robert (Novak).
It’s only when she describes her beloved characters as family that the tuppence drops. They are not competing with her imagination, but her memories. She has an emotional need to protect her intellectual property.
Using flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, her relationships with her adored but troubled father (Farrell) and fragile mother (Ruth Wilson) are gradually revealed. These scenes are relied on more than necessary, particularly at the denouement, but Farrell’s nuanced performance keeps them from becoming unwelcome. His portrayal of a family man spinning tall tales while spiralling out of control is the best he’s given in years.
With the House of Mouse keeping a watchful eye, a moustached Hanks delivers a Disney that is charismatic but canny. He’s patient but not slow to show the power behind the pixie dust. In securing the rights he’s fulfilling a promise he made to his daughters but he’s also a shrewd business man who sees Poppin’s potential profits.
The screen time between Disney and Travers is slighter than billed but Hanks and Thompson generate a chemistry that makes their spars sparkle.
After years of bonnet wearing and hand wringing, Thompson is in heaven. She relishes the chance to dish out the writer’s fabulously rude retorts. She looks fantastic too; tightly contained in tweed, a slash of red lipstick enhancing every purse of disapproval.
Although Travers is anti-social and antagonistic, Thompson never lets her become unsympathetic or dislikeable. And her pithy put-downs are often hilarious. Her reaction on hearing Dick Van Dyke described as ‘one of the greats’ is priceless.
As she confronts her past and her crustiness crumbles, the danger of soppy sentimentality looms large. Thankfully Thompson’s turn remains beautifully measured and ensures the sugar is kept to just a spoonful.