Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Spoonful of sugar not required

Tale of how Mary Poppins film was made as sweet as magical nanny

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It's a Hollywood legend that Walt Disney felt some sort of malevolent glee in killing Bambi's mom and what that animated death would do to the children who saw it.

But that's only a legend.

P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the glorious Mary Poppins, was a brittle, snobbish martinet and a humourless control freak -- that's a fact. Stay through the credits of Saving Mr. Banks and hear for yourself.

Emma Thompson brings Travers to prickly life in Saving Mr. Banks, Disney's amusingly testy and emotionally rich telling of Walt Disney's courtly struggles with the dismissive writer as he and his dream factory turned Mary Poppins into one of the most beloved children's musicals ever.

The courtship -- Tom Hanks plays patient, long-suffering Disney -- is not an easy one. She is in the habit of barging into the movie / TV / theme park mogul's office. He is all charm and informality. He calls her "Pam."

We meet Travers in London, her agent telling her she needs the money and must finally sell the screen rights to her most famous book.

Travers flies to Los Angeles and disapproves of everything: The flight, the scent in the air, the hotel.

"Let's make something wonderful," Disney purrs.

"I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!"

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps this courtship centre stage, and tells the story of Disney figuring out why Travers (real name, Helen Lyndon Goff) is the way she is and what he can do to make this unpleasant and miserable woman happy. That discovery is in the film's many flashbacks, to young Helen Goff's childhood in rural Australia, where her overwhelmed, worried mother (Ruth Wilson) was dependent on Helen's father (Colin Farrell, very good), a drinking banker who would rather play with his kids than show up for work.

The flashbacks give the story its pathos. The battles in the early 1960s in Burbank, Calif., deliver the laughs, and lots of them. Travers came to "supervise" the planned film, basically threatening to back out of the deal over the casting of Dick Van Dyke, over the inclusion of an animated sequence, over the silly, made-up-word songs of the beloved Disney house composers, the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, a hoot), and other irritants.

Hanks wears Disney's moustache and comfortingly plays up his Midwestern drawl (and smoker's cough). And this always-reliable leading man ably suggests the gentle, but firm, never-take-no-for-an-answer movie mogul as he lays on the folksy charm to a woman who is, in every way, immune to it.

Thompson plays Travers as a fairy godmother who has given up the sweet act to show her Cruella De Vil side. She is hilariously unpleasant and downright rude, but we, like Disney and her driver (Paul Giamatti), can sense it's all an act, and that this pose has deep-rooted, painful underpinnings. It's a great performance.

The film's a trifle long, especially for a story whose ending, we know, was a happy one, but with Saving Mr. Banks, Hancock, Thompson and Hanks find that holiday film sweet spot, blending the poignant with the unpleasant, the grim with the giddy.

It was never going to be Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious -- reserve that honour for the film that inspired it -- but Saving Mr. Banks is still one of the best pictures of the year.

-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2013 D5

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