November 29, 2013 -- This interesting historical comedy-drama explores the genesis of the classic film “Mary Poppins.” It is primarily a battle between Walt Disney, who is an irresistible force in show business, and Miss P.L. Travers, who is an immovable object who has prevented this film from being made for over 20 years.
Travers (played by Emma Thompson) the author of the book, refuses to give Disney (played by Tom Hanks) the film rights to her book unless she has complete creative control over the film. At one point she insists that the finished film could not include the color red. She was testing Disney to see if she really has any control over the film.
The film begins with Travers in London, resisting her agent's pleas to accept Disney's movie deal. She is nearly out of money and afraid she will lose her house, so she finally relents. She travels to Los Angeles to see Disney. She agrees to allow the film to be made, but only if she has veto power over anything she doesn't like.
Travers has a lot of creative differences with Disney screen writers and song writers. The song writers include the Sherman Brothers, (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) a very successful songwriting team. At first, she objects to the very idea of songs and dancing in the film, but finally relents on that point. On one point, however, she will not bend. She wants no animation in the movie.
As these arguments go on the focus is increasingly on the father figure in the story, Mr. Banks. Travers insists that Mr. Banks is being portrayed in a way that makes him seem too harsh and unloving. There are frequent flashbacks to Travers as a child, focusing on her complex relationship to her own father (played by Colin Farrell). There are also some scenes with a nanny who came to take care of the children when Travers' father was ill.
Disney is not aware of these events in Travers' childhood that are leading to her emotional problems now. A pivotal moment comes when Travers finds out Disney plans to put animated penguins in a dancing scene with Dick Van Dyke. She leaves Los Angeles and goes back to London. Meanwhile, Disney has at last found out about Travers' father. He gets on the next flight to London for a final showdown with Travers.
The acting by Hanks and Thompson is superb and there are some great supporting performances on display here as well, starting with Paul Giamatti as Travers' assigned chauffeur (the only American that Travers likes). Kathy Baker turns in another in a long line great supporting performances in this film as Disney's trusted assistant, Tommie. She specializes in portraying smart, sensible supporting characters rich in ironic wit.
The cinematography by John Schwartzman (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) is excellent in a variety of environments and locations. This is a good looking film with a rich musical score by Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”). For all those pluses, the film's attempt to meld comedy and drama doesn't quite work well enough to make a great film. The attempt to cut in a bushel of flashbacks without interrupting the narrative flow of the film is another obstacle that isn't quite overcome. It is good, but not great. It rates a B.
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