There’s more than a spoonful of sugar - and a dollop of sobering medicine – in this part biopic, part behind-the-scenes look at Walt Disney’s battle to bring the eponymous Poppins to the silver screen…
Pamela Travers (“Mrs Travers, please”), played by Emma Thompson, is in trouble. Her books have stopped selling, she’s had to let go of her assistant, and a certain Mr Disney has tried, for the millionth time, to buy the rights to turn her beloved Mary Poppins into a frivolous animated movie. But, as her agent informs her, it’s Disney or bust – so off Mrs Travers goes from her cherry tree lined street in London to Burbank, California, to meet Mr Disney (“Call me Walt”), played by Tom Hanks, and the writing team to negotiate a deal.
What could easily have descended into a fish-out-of-water comedy as Travers does battle in script meetings, becomes a unique insight into her early life in Australia as Helen Lyndon Goff. For those who weren’t aware of the background of Poppins’ creator, you may be surprised to find that Travers grew up in a small Australian town, the apple of her alcoholic banker father Travers Goff’s eye. Goff, a loving dreamer portrayed with care by Colin Farrell, wants the best for his daughters but is ultimately the victim of his own hard work and excesses, leaving Helen (who later adopts Travers as a nom de plume) under the watchful eye of Aunt Ellie Goff – who appears to be an inspiration for Poppins herself, among various other clues to the story’s inspiration.
Travers’ story is revealed gradually through flashbacks between present-day Los Angeles scenes, providing poignant undertones and reminding us what the story is really about- the atonement of Mr Banks. Thompson plays her with just the right amount of sharpness, grief and, ultimately, warmth, as she is gradually won over by stubborn negotiation and a hearty dose of the Sherman brothers’ magical songs. It’s both hilarious and nerve-wracking as she haughtily dismisses certain made-up words and animated animals that is would be difficult to imagine the film without. At times, it’s hard to believe the writer could have been so stubborn - however, as a real recording of their meeting plays over the end credits, it’s clear just how accurate Thompson’s portrayal is.
Fantastic supporting performances add the right amount of schmaltz to the story, including Paul Giamatti as long-suffering chauffeur Ralph, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak as the genius Sherman brothers, and Bradley Whitford as the man behind the screenplay, Don DeGradi. All find themselves at the end of Thompson’s sharp tongue, and give subtle performances that showcase the loyalty of team Disney.
Hanks gives us a firm, if a little rose-tinted portrayal of the movie mogul Walt, who is aware of his power and yet allows Travers to demand that Mary Poppins (“Never just Mary”) be done her way. Walt adds his own gravitas to the story by revealing his own laborious childhood, resulting in a tough resolve to bring Poppins to the big screen for his daughters, no matter what it takes. It’s here that the central theme becomes apparent, we learn that Mary Poppins wasn’t really there to help the children, and that family is everything. It’s a joyful, cathartic experience and I suspect I wasn’t the only moviegoer reaching for the tissues by the end.