Every now and then a film is released that has such an overt conflict of interest that it can make you cringe. Anyone who has seen Happy Gilmore will recognize that product placement can ruin a film, even if it is a comedy. However the new film from Disney has just the right level of self-deprecation and awareness to give different viewers different enjoyments.
The story follows P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) deciding whether to sell the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Disney has invited her to Hollywood so that she can be involved in the scriptwriting process, but she is cynical from the start and is horrified that they have included music and animation into her stoic and serious character stories.
The film is intercut with scenes from Travers’ childhood where she grew up in Australia. Her father was a banker with an alcohol problem but a wonderful imagination, who slowly begins to jeopardize his career with his drunken flamboyance.
The main humour and tenderness of the film revolves around the differences between American and British values / imagery. So in America everyone is on first name terms (even with Walt), and yet she insists that everyone calls her “Mrs Travers”. Another funny observation is that in America, “Nobody walks”. In this respect, Emma Thompson is absolutely brilliant as the cantankerous yet principled stiff-upper-lip Brit. Her performance is so layered with strengths and vulnerabilities that she reminds me of her other role as a lonely author in Stranger Than Fiction. (The way in which she reacts to the song-writing duo is fantastic...
As I said before, there are plenty of visual references to Disney merchandise, which are mostly laughed at by Travers – especially in a scene where she first gets to the hotel and the room is swamped with fluffy toys. The film manages to mock the Disney magic whilst (obviously) simultaneously reinforcing it, yet by Disney standards the shift is quite subtle.
The film is an obvious homage to Mary Poppins and classical Disney, and anyone who knows and loves the film will know that in the ‘60s film, Poppins will always there to save the father figure Mr. Banks and not the children. So this film is a continuation/exploration of that theme with a huge emphasis on the idea that any complications with early attachments to parental figures have huge consequences later in life. A monologue from Disney himself also reaffirms this theory.
I saw this film on a Sunday afternoon, which was the perfect situation to see it in, and felt completely satisfied with the drama, the gentle comedy and the touching emotive scenes. Emma Thompson is utterly incredible and the final scenes where she eventually watches Mary Poppins at the premier completely blew my mind…