Friday, January 10, 2014


While author P.L. Travers may not be a household name, her creation Mary Poppins is. Likewise her book series’ title character has been overshadowed by the Julie Andrews personification in Walt Disney’s beloved 1964 movie. Even less well known (until now at least) was the torturous process by which Disney secured the rights to use the character and thereby create his benchmark live-action film. John Lee Hancock directs from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, which toggles primarily between early 1900s Australia and 1961 Burbank. At the film’s opening Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) relocates his family to a remote village for a banking job but spends more time bonding with young daughter Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) and hitting the bottle than attending to work; while Travers (Emma Thompson), some 50 years later, travels to Hollywood from London to finalize the rights deal with Disney (Tom Hanks) and oversee (meaning approve) the final script. Travers periodically drifts into reveries, and we soon surmise that Ginty is the memory of herself as a girl, and Goff her father. Upon arrival the prickly Travers clashes with everyone, from personal chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti) to screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) to song composers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) to Disney himself. She has adamantly resisted the mogul’s offers for two decades, but money concerns softened her resolve. However, she intends to extract a pound of flesh before signing on the dotted line. The scenes in the story conference room, based on historical recordings, are the film’s highlight. They are filled with thrilling insight into the painful push and pull of the creative process. The flashbacks, on the other hand, are maudlin and posit unconvincingly that Travers clings to Mary Poppins as she does to the memory of her long-dead father. The performances run from strong (Thompson and Hanks) to serviceable (Giamatti and Farrell), but they and the film struggle against the Disney ethos of redemption. As Mr. Banks was saved in the 1964 film, the filmmakers save Travers here. I’m not sure she would approve.

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