A film about Walt Disney, produced via the Walt Disney Company, so I am sure it is full of saccharine notions about storytelling and imagination. And as is to be expected, the film opens up with a scene about a little girl making a house in the grass, and her father (Colin Farrell) goes on about princesses. The girl will grow up to become a writer, P.L. Travers, who is the author of the Mary Poppins books. This film’s whole self-aggrandizing purpose about Disney and storytelling is a handicap that it has to struggle against from the start. My only hope is that it has some good acting, some comedy and a solid story. Let’s have a look.
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) wrote her Mary Poppins books years ago and but right now (1961) she is quite bankrupt. She hasn’t written anything else either. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wants to make a film about Poppins and so wants to obtain the rights from Mrs. Travers. Her agent desperately tries to convince her to sell those rights, but Mrs. Travers steadfastly refuses. Her Poppins stories are very personal to her and she doesn’t want some director to change them. After much hemming and hawing, Mrs. Travers agrees to travel to Los Angeles for 2 weeks (and 2 weeks only!) to meet with Mr. Disney.
What she finds there turns her world upside down. What we find there is quite a delightful movie.
We are alright in the acting department. Emma Thompson is great as the eccentric Mrs. Travers. Her eccentricity comes with a nice British flavor, which makes her totally out of place in warm and welcoming Los Angeles. She will not be taken in with any of that silly animation business, and Mary Poppins will definitely not be a musical. Preposterious! Tom Hanks meanwhile, dials his charm up to eleven as Mr. Disney and tries to melt the ice cube that is Mrs. Travers like a furnace. Mrs. Travers is a riddle that he wants to solve.
We get part of that riddle in scenes about Mrs. Travers’ childhood, in which not everything is working out well for her family. Colin Farrell has a fine supporting role here, radiating that fatherly love like a warm bath. He talks as if he is in fact a character from a Poppins fantasy. Maybe that is why Mrs. Travers’ Mary Poppins stories are so personal for her. This film could be a companion piece to Finding Neverland (2004), in which Johnny Depp plays the equally mysterious J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and Kate Winslet tries to solve that particular puzzle. Both movies have the same whimsical piano music.
You know how these stories go. The whole story structure instantly turns Mrs. Travers into a tragic figure. All the while we are waiting for something bad to happen in the flashbacks, and I really don’t like that feeling at all. And it all plays out in a rather predictable way and it does feel like a manipulative and drawn-out part of the story. I’m sorry to say that it is typical Disney tearjerker material and it is too standard of a story to really surprise you. You’ll just have to sigh and accept it as part and parcel of such tales. I’d rather have liked to see more of Emma Thompson and her little fights with Disney and his writers.
Emma Thompson is the best reason to watch this film. She delivers a performance that is in the end quite heartfelt and she puts a lot of emotion into this role. It is much more her film than it is about Walt Disney, even though there is this undercurrent in the story of Disney winning people over with his “magic”, which does feel put on too thickly. Still, a recommendation for a well-acted, lighthearted and eventually touching story.