Long before it owned Pixar, Marvel and an entire galaxy far, far away, one of Disney’s hottest properties was a flying nanny. As Mary Poppins turns 50, the Mouse House returns to its 1964 musical for a sugary spoonful of self-penned studio history.
Opening with a vintage logo to the eye-misting strains of ‘Feed The Birds’, the tone is set for an affectionate look at the journey Mary took from the pages of P.L. Travers’ novel to the all-singing, all-dancing world of Walt Disney.
Emma Thompson plays the Aussie-born British writer as a prim grande dame who, understandably, doesn’t want to see her beloved creation turned into a theme-park ride. Flown out to LA to discuss the rights with Tom Hanks’ gregarious Uncle Walt, her stuffy English sensibilities land her right in the middle of Disneyland.
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) takes a few swipes at the Magic Kingdom, but he stops short of slagging off the boss.
By the mid-’60s, Disney was reportedly a hot-tempered taskmaster who rode around his mansion on a miniature train, but Hanks sees him as an eccentric uncle who puts too much sugar in his tea – a kindly old Colonel Kurtz who pops up at the mid-point with a big grin and a warm handshake. Coming straight from the intensity of Captain Phillips, Hanks does a fine job, but this isn’t his film.
Forced to sell her cherished childhood stories, Travers is the tragic heroine of the story. Despite Hancock’s every attempt to paint her as Mary to Walt’s Bert the chimney sweep, her strained friendship with Disney is rooted in sadness. Wringing every ounce of repressed heartbreak and winsome crabbiness out of the role, Thompson gives her best performance in years – with a post-credits recording of the real Travers revealing just how accurate she is.
Less welcome is Colin Farrell, cast as Travers’ Aussie/Cockney/American/Irish drunk dad in annoying flashbacks that snap you right out of film. Better by half are Paul Giamatti as doughy chauffeur Ralph and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the songwriting Sherman brothers.
With most of its teary moments either heavy-handed, heavily signposted or both, this isn’t one for cynics. Skipping towards its dubiously happy ending, it’s a movie Poppins partisans will embrace but others may find as fluffy as a dancing penguin.
Hanks takes to Walt like a pair of cosy slippers, but it’s Thompson who adds layers to a classy but predictable slice of Disney schmaltz.