This true story only barely avoids becoming sloppily sentimental, thanks to a solid cast and a final act that generates honest emotion. Awash with the Disney spirit, the film breaks free of the marketing machine to recount events that are lively and often very funny, but also manage to be sharply moving. It's the kind of crowd-pleaser that deserves to do well both at the box office and in awards ceremonies.
Set in 1961, it's the story of how Walt Disney (Hanks) finally lures PL Travers (Thompson) to Hollywood to woo her into signing over the film rights to Mary Poppins after some 20 years of pestering. She is equally determined to protect her creation, which is very close to her heart. But she agrees to work with the screenwriter (Whitford) and composers (Schwartzman and Novak) as long as she has veto power. Her demands are crazy ("I don't want the colour red anywhere in the movie!"), but everyone tries to win her over. Eventually Walt realises that he needs to find out exactly why Mary Poppins is so important to her. And that the story is more about Mary's affect on the family's father, Mr Banks, than the children.
Indeed, in parallel flashbacks we see Travers' childhood in rural 1906 Australia, where she lives as a young girl (Buckley) with her lively father (Farrell) and shattered mother (Wilson). Her dad's alcoholism is the driving force of these scenes, which feel like a completely separate film intercut with sunny 1960s Hollywood. But they add weight to Thompson's remarkably detailed performance, which is marvellously withering and hilarious, and also subtly emotional. Her interaction with the buoyant Hanks is sharp and jagged, and the film's nicest scenes are between Travers and her driver, sensitively played by Giamatti.
Of course, the movie is full of references to Disney's iconic classic film, from those impossibly catchy songs to tiny references only die-hard fans will catch. We may know that Travers will sign over the rights, but how she gets there is genuinely involving, leading to a potent emotional catharsis when she watches the completed movie at its world premiere. Director Hancock can't help make every scene just a little too beautiful, but he never forgets to find the gritty truth underneath it all. And in the process he delivers a gentle story about the redemptive value of storytelling.
Run time: 125 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th December 2013
Box Office USA: $83.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $82.6M
Distributed by: Walt Disney Pictures
Production compaines: Hopscotch Features, Walt Disney Pictures, Ruby Films, Essential Media & Entertainment, BBC Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 183 Rotten: 47
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriter: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Starring: Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Colin Farrell as Travers Robert Goff, Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff, Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman, Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, Annie Rose Buckley as Ginty, B. J. Novak as Robert Sherman, Kathy Baker as Tommie, Lily Bigham as Biddy, Kathy Baker as Tommie, Melanie Paxson as Dolly, Andy McPhee as Mr. Belhatchett, Rachel Griffiths as Aunt Ellie, Ronan Vibert as Diarmuid Russell
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