If a Disney film told the truth, then, it would not be true to the studio. There is nothing wrong with a ‘spoonful of sugar’ as long as it is clear where the boundaries lie, the film charms rather patronises the audience and its witty asides prevent it all from drifting into excess and flying away like a kite.
Normally, Disney targets the family audience; a fantasy for the kids with plenty of knowing double meanings to keep the adults engaged. The studio’s latest film works the other way around, one for the adults – particularly those who grew up during the Sixties – but without ignoring the younger viewers. And it works an absolute treat.
This is a sanitised/Disneyfied account of how Walt Disney coaxed, flattered and enticed fierce battle-axe author, PL Travers, into relinquishing film rights to her precious Mary Poppins character after holding out for twenty years. It plays out against flashbacks to Travers’ difficult childhood in Australia where her alcoholic father regressed into a childlike fantasy, which – possibly unintentionally – shows what would happen if a Disney adult character encountered the real world.
Emma Thompson is hilarious playing Travers as a fish out of water snob, who treats anything American, and Hollywood in particular, with a very British ‘upper lip’ disdain – “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons” – and makes a virtue out of walking around with her nose in the air and slapping down – well – everybody. A tape recording of the real Travers on set, which we hear during the end credits, reveals Thompson’s portrayal to be one of the film’s more accurate parts.
Tom Hanks plays Disney in the way that you would expect for a movie from the film magnate’s own studio – every bit the gracious and charming Uncle Walt – but uses all his experience and immense talent to gently and nostalgically poke fun at Disney’s distinctive brand of sentimentality without, at any time, destabilising the film. Coming hot on the heels of Captain Phillips, it has been a great year for Hanks and a reminder of how filmmakers have underused him during recent times.
And BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman chip in with a seductive turn as the Disney songwriting pair, the Sherman brothers, providing a delightful blend of childlike enthusiasm and musical sophistication. Travers – sorry, ‘Mrs Travers’ or simply ‘Mrs’ if you were an American chauffeur – ultimately finds them irresistible and so do we.
John Lee Hancock’s reputation as being a filmmaker who cannot resist a bit of sentimentality, even when dealing with realist material, would have helped him get this gig. Ironically, though, Hancock takes a step back – in the same way as Hanks – and makes a very knowing film that contextualises ‘sentimentality’ as much as it does incorporate it. The result is a film about Mary Poppins’ creator in the spirit of the original Sixties musical adaptation without any pretence. How else could they have got away with completely changing the ending to the real life saga, which takes on an irony of its own?
It will be interesting to see what Hancock comes up with next! As for this one, it is spot on.