Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA/United Kingdom/Australia, 2013. Walt Disney Pictures, Ruby Films, Easy Tiger Productions, Essential Media & Entertainment, BBC Films, Hopscotch Features. Screenplay by Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. Cinematography by John Schwartzman. Produced by Ian Collie, Alison Owen, Philip Steuer. Music by Thomas Newman. Production Design by Michael Corenblith. Costume Design by Daniel Orlandi. Film Editing by Mark Livolsi. Academy Awards 2013. Golden Globe Awards 2013. Washington Film Critics Awards 2013.
When Mary Poppins was released in 1964 it quickly became the most successful box office hit of all time and won five Academy Awards, making a superstar of its lead actress Julie Andrews and entering its musical score into the canon of instantly familiar tunes. It also spawned a successful Broadway musical run in later years, but did you know that until the day she died (at the age of 96), author P.L. Travers absolutely loathed Walt Disney’s adaptation of her popular children’s books? That is the irony upon which this gratuitously manipulative film is based, featuring a stunning Emma Thompson, in her best feature film role in years, playing the author who after twenty years of being courted by the mercurial Disney (played with terrific gusto by Tom Hanks) has finally agreed to entertain the possibility of his adapting her works to film. She, in her prickly manner, has no intention of letting him turn her flying nanny with the salty wisdom into a “twinkling” fairy tale, but she is also short on cash and is convinced to at least fly out to California, which she says smells of “chlorine and sweat”, and entertain the possibility of a successful collaboration. When she arrives, Travers is utterly uncharmable from the first moment, unwilling to be called by her first name and poring over every painful detail of the film version with exasperated screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and politely patient composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), the whole time clutching the transfer of rights contract in her purse as if it was her escape ticket to freedom. Along the way we also get a number of badly directed, unnecessary flashbacks, the weight of which are the film’s greatest drawback, to her hardscrabble life in Australia, growing up at the ass end of nowhere in the bush with a depressed mother (Ruth Wilson) and alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), the latter a man whose frightening combination of love and self-abuse created feelings in Travers that she has yet to resolve. The more difficult her behavior in allowing Disney the freedom to make the movie he dreams of, the more the film tycoon comes to realize the origin of the fable he sees financial promise in, and an interesting connection develops between these two giant personalities. Not that director John Lee Hancock shows any skill in mining their friction: terrific dialogue and outstanding performances make for such an easy film to watch, but even a person with the scantest knowledge of the situations it is based on can see that it is monstrously contrived. The life that Travers is constantly flashing back to, and Thompson does a superb job of convincing you that her memories are always on her mind, should give you more information about the barrenness of her childhood but instead focuses on endless moments of Hallmark cheesery between father and daughter. We even meet the real Mary Poppins (Rachel Griffiths), but her significance is shunted aside quickly in a film that is already buckling under its own excessive weight. The scenes of Travers fussing over details to the point of being abusive to everyone around her are the film’s best, but when she finally breaks (the veracity of which is debatable) it is accomplished in such a dishonest manner; the woman who hated musicals may have danced up a storm in the rehearsal room but you barely believe it when you see it. What really kills what could have been a solid venture, however, is the fear on the filmmakers’ part to malign the memory of the man behind it all: it would take nothing away from the legend of Walt Disney to find out that his business dealings were not all pleasant, yet a lot of the nastier encounters between the two figures have been purposely and insultingly omitted. Disney and Travers left the project on a very sour note following its completion, which is replaced with his conquering her obstinate refusals via an accurate psychological profiling over tea. In reality, Disney actually barred Travers from the project following her approving the script and handing over the rights (even after the first screening she was still ambling to get the animation cut out), and Travers was so embittered by the experience that she legally prevented any Americans from ever working on anything based on her writing ever again (including in her last will and testament: the recent stage musical adaptation’s extra material was written by English composers as per her instructions, and no one associated with the film was allowed to be involved). Replacing these harsh realities with the studio tycoon sweetly insinuating himself into a surrogate father-figure role and turning Travers’ sharp charms into weepy vulnerability is an insult to both her integrity and his ferocious personality. Thompson and Hanks, however, seem ready to circumvent these compromises even while knowing that this weak director will have the last laugh, and their sparks make the whole thing well worth the effort. She is an actress intelligent enough to understand that it is insecurity that makes a person so rude, which is why her constant abruptness with others (including a charming Paul Giamatti as her driver) makes her strangely loveable and charismatic. Hanks focuses on being joyfully mercurial, his successful moments performed as insight and sympathy rather than greed, so that the momentary indulgences in tyranny are assumed to be part of his charisma.