In the hands of Emma Thompson, “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers is a spoonful of something, all right, but it sure ain’t sugar.
She’s blunt, bristling and belligerent — as well as a few other “B” words — in her dealings with Walt Disney (a delightful Tom Hanks) and his creative team in the Disney-movie-about-a-Disney-movie “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Travers had spent the past 20 years rebuffing Uncle Walt’s overtures to turn her beloved book into a movie. Mary Poppins — never just Mary, she curtly explains — is a part of her life. She’s family. And, as she tells an exasperated, bordering-on-furious Disney, “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!”
But when she learns she’s broke because the “Mary Poppins” royalties have dried up and she refuses to write sequels, Travers decides that maybe just maybe she loves her house, and the ability to pay for it, at least nearly as much as her most famous creation.
Before long, she’s in Los Angeles, where she’s placed in the care of Ralph (Paul Giamatti), a chauffeur so earnest, so full of “okey-dokeys” and “no problemos,” so eternally sunny thanks to the lessons he’s learned from his wheelchair-bound daughter, he’d might as well be animated.
What follows is a battle of wills pitting the obnoxious Travers against Disney and his creative team, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), as they repeatedly alter their vision to accommodate the whims of Travers, who still hasn’t signed over the movie rights.
She complains about the lack of “gravitas” in the script. She derides the “Spoonful of Sugar” lyrics as being “enormously patronizing.” At one point, she declares she’s tired of the color red and demands that it not appear anywhere in the movie.
But the Shermans and DaGradi finally break through to her during a giddy rendition of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” that not only captures her heart, it will melt away any cynicism you bring into the theater and stay in your head for days. Although she’s obviously quite moved by the performance, Travers is quick to point out that “the proper English would be, ‘Let US go AND fly a kite.’ ”
Like any good origin tale, though, “Banks” — directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) from a script by Kelly Marcel (“Terra Nova”) and Sue Smith (“Peaches”) — can’t just let Travers be miserable. It has to explore what made her that way. As a result, the action too often cuts between 1961 Los Angeles and Travers’ troubled childhood in 1906 Australia.
Her banker father (Colin Farrell, better than he’s been in quite a while), the model for “Mary Poppins’ ” Mr. Banks, created a fantasy world for a young Travers, telling her at various points that their horse once was their uncle and one of their chickens had been her aunt.
But he was a vicious alcoholic who nearly drove her mother mad, and his worsening condition led to her no-nonsense, nannyish aunt (Rachel Griffiths) coming to look after him.
Those scenes are moving and important as they shine a light on where “Mary Poppins” came from and why Travers clings so dearly to the story. But there are too many of them, and they’re quite dark for what otherwise is a sunny, comic joy.
Some of that cynicism likely will start creeping back in during the lavish “Mary Poppins” premiere, where Travers is shown tearing up as scenes from the actual 1964 classic unfold inside the then-Grauman’s Chinese Theater. That’s when “Banks” begins to feel a bit like a preposterously elaborate, Oscar-caliber promotion for the 50th anniversary “Mary Poppins” Blu-ray released earlier this month.
The business with Disney and Travers — whom he steadfastly and folksily refers to by her first name, Pamela, or even Pam, even though he knows it drives her crazy — is almost absurdly enjoyable. For her part, Thompson seems to be having a ball spewing forth all of Travers’ nastiness onto whomever crosses her path.
Schwartzman, Novak and Whitford work so well together you’ll find yourself wanting to spend more time with them.
And even though Travers is “positively sickened” by the invitation to accompany Disney on a tour of his theme park, the scenes at Disneyland, with Hanks as a beaming, rock-star tour guide, fully realize the magic of the Magic Kingdom.
“Saving Mr. Banks” may not be super.
But it’s verygoodcalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.