Director: John Lee Hooker
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giammati, Ruth Wilson, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Kathy Baker
Written by: Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
Running Time: 125 mins
Release date: 29th November 2013
Let me get this out-of-the-way right at the very beginning…I’m not a fan of Mary Poppins! There, I said it. I know, controversial but I always found it to be too disjointed and far too long. Maybe a child having seen it, I wanted something else but was never really sure what. Having seen Saving Mr Banks, maybe I need to re-evaluate my position on the flying nanny because I might have been looking at it through very different eyes indeed.
P.L.Travers has refused anyone to touch her beloved best-selling children’s book, Mary Poppins. For twenty years, movie mogul, Walt Disney, has been desperate to get his hands on it and turn it into a film. He persuades her to come to Hollywood and work on the script, following her own strict guidelines, which include no singing and no animation! While out in Los Angeles and bantering with script writer Don DaGradi and musical partnership, Richard and Robert Sherman, Travers remembers her upbringing in the outbacks of Australia and her father, who she doted on, even though he had a drinking problem and which influenced her book much more than she ever thought.
This is a film produced by the Walt Disney Studios and so you tend to enter it kind of knowing that it’s going to be sugar-coated and quite possibly the truth has been stretched a little but it comes at you still with plenty to enjoy and some neat surprises. John Lee Hooker’s film is very pleasing on the eye and you do invest time in the characters and the situations, even though you know the outcome. It’s not a perfect film by any means but its heart is in the right place.
The attention to detail is quite impressive, from the early 60s decor and costumes to the original Disney posters that adorn the offices and the recreation of Walt’s photos (including the cover of Time Magazine). It brings the sense of period to life. What I struggled with were the flashbacks of Travers as a child. This little dollops of information that eventually lead to reasonings behind the story of Mary Poppins are all fine and good, with, again, a good sense of period and fine performances. They do seem to get in the way of the narrative and sometimes offer some strange narrative contrivances (Travers’s arrival at the Beverly Hills Hotel leads her to throwing pears out the window, which are later explained and you find yourself going “So that why she threw them into the pool!”) Just as the story is flowing and we are enjoying Travers’s acid-tongue, we get interrupted by another flashback.
Having said that, there is plenty to enjoy too. It is surprisingly very funny with some terrific one-liners and quips from one and all. The performances are nicely pitched too. Bradley Whitford is good as DaGradi, as are Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman Brothers. Colin Farrell is also strong as Travers’s father and its nice to see Rachel Griffiths back on our screens again. Paul Giammati is a delight as Travers’s driver, who somehow warms her cold heart.
It is the two leads that impress the most. Tom Hanks follows up his hugely impressive performance in Captain Phillips with another real-life character, Walt Disney. In the less showy of the two leads, Hanks brings a gentleness and sometimes vulnerability to the role that only Hanks can do. He is charming and delightful and the kind of man you want to spend time with, never raising his voice in anger, even if he is pushed to the limits. It’s another cracker from a truly great screen actor.
The film, however, belongs to Emma Thompson as Travers. This is a woman who knows what she wants and there is no way you are going to ignore her. She is bitingly witty, incredibly strong-willed and sometimes just plain nasty but Thompson keeps her on our side at all times, producing one of her finest performances. She is hilarious in places, as a dignified woman clinging onto the one thing she holds close to her heart. She is also surprisingly touching too, especially how she warms to her driver. If you only go to she her, it will be worth the admission fee.
Is it all true? Maybe. Is it a delightfully piece of entertainment? Yes. Would I recommend it? I think I would. If you can skip around the lashings of sentimentality dolloped over the place and enjoy it for two gifted performers at the top of their game . It must have done the trick for me to want to watch Mary Poppins again.
N.B: Don’t leave after the main credits as you get to hear real recordings of P.L. Travers’s meetings with the script writers.