2013 Running time: 125 Certificate: pg Rating: 4

Synopsis

Emma Thompson is a crotchety hoot as PL Travers, the reclusive author who gave Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) a tough time in bringing her most precious creation - Mary Poppins - to the big screen. After refusing to give up the rights for 20 years, Mrs Travers finally comes to Hollywood on the understanding that she will have approval over any adaptation. No singing. No animation. No Dick Van Dyke. So what would it take to make the medicine go down? A true story as endearing and characterful as the classic it brought about.

Director

  • John Lee Hancock

Cast

  • Emma Thompson

  • Tom Hanks

  • Colin Farrell

  • Paul Giamatti

  • Jason Schwartzman

  • Ruth Wilson

  • Bradley Whitford

Review

A Disney movie about Walt Disney making a Disney movie that gets more Disney-like as it goes along and even has a Disney ending; Saving Mr Banks is as meta as movies get. Disney ones, anyway.

Suffice to say that the story behind the making of Mary Poppins is as delightful a showcase of Disney's values as any of his fictions - a celebration of collaboration through compromise, the joy of music, and, above all, the importance of family. All coated with the requisite spoonful of schmaltz.

Emma Thompson is in her element as Pamela "call me Mrs" Travers, the seemingly quintessential English starchypants who actually began life as a carefree daddy's girl in turn-of-the-century Australia.

How she became such a closed-off killjoy is just part of the story, to which director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) returns in frequent flashbacks.

Perhaps too frequent, since it doesn't take long to get the gist that the young PL (born Helen Lyndon Goff) was hopelessly devoted to her feckless father (Colin Farrell) who was, alas, hopelessly devoted to the bottle.

While pertinent, PL's backstory puts a melodramatic brake on the main event: her relationship with the irrepressible Mr Disney (Hanks) and his all-American empire. In script and performance, this is where the fun is at.

In 1962, having spurned Disney's cinematic advances for 20 years, Mrs Travers reluctantly gives in to her agent and flies to California to see what Disney and his lackeys have planned for her beloved creation.

She is not impressed. If their first-name familiarity and boundless optimism wasn't distasteful enough, she finds their creative ideas appalling. Singing nannies, Dick Van Dyke and dancing penguins, indeed.

Yet no matter how exasperated they get, from the song-writing Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) and production chief Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) to Mrs T's lowly chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), it's clear that everyone wants to do best by Mary Poppins.

Same goes for the people in the film behind the film. Thompson's withering masterclass sets the standard to which everyone around her rises, while awards voters are going to have a real headache choosing between Hanks' pitch-perfect portrayal of Captain Phillips and Uncle Walt.

The moment where Travers dismisses his life's work as "silly cartoons" elicits a reaction of flickering hurt to match anything he endured while saving Private Ryan.

You could argue that Mrs Travers was a bit of hypocrite, demanding impeccable manners from everyone else while being the epitome of rudeness herself. But being no fun is what makes her so funny.

With more than enough ready wit to counter the Freudian heaviness, the script hits more high notes than low. Even the one casting misfit - the somehow unsuitable Farrell - can't be faulted for earnestness.

Warm, heartening and often rather splendid, there's only one word for it. Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious...

Elliott Noble

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