Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray
Prior to seeing this movie, I kept hearing how shocking it was that this film was not anywhere in the pool of Oscar nominees. After seeing it, I’m a bit surprised myself. But it’s a pleasant surprise. This film is competently directed and very well acted, but it is precisely the type of Hollywood self-aggrandizing that the Academy all too often likes to sink its teeth into, and I’m glad to see that this time they did not take the bait.
This is the story of Mary Poppins. Rather, it is the meta-story of Mary Poppins, as only Disney can tell it. Mrs. Travers does not want to give up the film rights to her beloved novel, for she fears that Walt Disney’s production will destroy the characters that she sees as family. Through flashbacks, we learn of Mrs. Travers’s troubled childhood and how the whimsy of those times turned out to be a dark, depressing lie. Over the course of the film, it is up to Walt Disney to turn her around, to get her to see the brighter side of life… and you can pretty much see where this is going.
To be fair, telling this tale could have gone so horribly wrong, but the film smartly plays itself as artsy and dramatic rather than as whimsical as Walt Disney himself. The flashbacks are particularly well done, showing both the original inspiration for Mary Poppins and how her childlike wonder turned into an antisocial cynicism. These flashbacks could have been a good movie on their own; even the usually underwhelming Colin Farrell gives a good performance as young Mrs. Travers’s father. The rest of the film’s storytelling is also done reasonably well, even if the plot does feel a bit predictable.
What really sells the film, though, are the performances of the two leads: Emma Thompson as Mrs. Travers, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Thompson plays an appropriately embittered Mrs. Travers, and the way her manners seem comically curt slowly transforms into very understandable behavior as more of her background is revealed. But Hanks’s Walt Disney is where the magic lies. If anyone deserved an Oscar nomination in this film, it’s him. Hanks is Disney. The childlike wonder with which he sees the world is nuanced by his tough business sense. He’s a human being with vices, who drinks and smokes, but only when others can’t see him. His image is everything, not solely out of vanity, but because he knows that being a good role model is how he’s going to be able to bring smiles to the children of the world. It is a surprisingly human representation of Walt Disney, and I’m pleased that Walt Disney Pictures was willing to allow such a nuanced portrayal of him. They probably allowed it, though, because the film allows for what I find to be its greatest flaw.
You see, Walt Disney is the driving force behind Mrs. Travers’s development as a character. She comes to him as a dark and brooding author bent on protecting her greatest accomplishment from his imminent bastardization of it. For most of the film, I’m totally on her side; film adaptations notoriously miss the mark in communicating the intent and message of the original author, and nothing Disney was telling her should have lead her to believe this would be any different. However, as the film progresses, he wears away at her tough exterior, bringing her around to being a happier and well-balanced person. At the film’s climax, in what is quite frankly a moment of weakness for her, he convinces her to sign away the movie rights by confronting her with what he has researched about her past. But that’s all okay because he has brought joy back into her life and she ended up liking the resulting film, despite her protestations to the contrary.
So the moral of the film becomes “Look at how great Walt Disney was! Disney brought so much magic into P. L. Travers’s life, and then did the same for all the world when he brought Mary Poppins to the screen. Let’s all give a round of applause for Disney.” It completely undermines Mrs. Travers’s personal journey throughout the course of the film. And, ultimately, it comes off as a conceited attempt by Walt Disney Pictures to earn awarded acclaim for stroking their own ego. Despite not having any glaring technical or plotting issues, the purpose of this film is obvious and distracting. If you think you can ignore the cinematic masturbation, by all means, give this one a shot. If, like me, you cannot, it’s not worth your time or disappointment.
There! I made it through the entire review without calling the movie pretentious. …Damn it! Leave your comments below.