The making of ‘Mary Poppins’ Emma Thompson rules as a curmudgeonly author confronted with Disney’s vision

Photo by FRANCOIS DUHAMEL -- Tom Hanks, as Walt Disne, shows Disneyland to 'Mary Poppins' author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in 'Saving Mr. Banks.' Show caption
Photo by FRANCOIS DUHAMEL -- Tom Hanks, as Walt Disne, shows Disneyland to 'Mary Poppins' author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in 'Saving Mr. Banks.'

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★

“Mary Poppins” is a sweet, magical children’s film. But behind the scenes, there was much acrimony on the part of the fictional nanny’s grumpy creator, P.L. Travers. She resisted Walt Disney’s efforts to buy the film rights to her Poppins books for 20 years.

Playing the demanding, disapproving Travers, Emma Thompson dominates “Saving Mr. Banks,” a film about the making of “Mary Poppins.” Roles like this for actresses of a certain age don’t appear too often. Thompson exploits the opportunity with awards-baiting bravura.

Opening simultaneously in the 1906 Australia of Travers’ childhood and the England of her middle age, the film commences in the writer’s London home. Her patient literary agent explains that royalties from her books have dried up. She’s out of money. But Disney in California has been trying to buy the rights to make a Mary Poppins movie for 20 years. He’ll even grant her script approval.

Giving in for reasons of economic necessity, Travers agrees to go to Los Angeles for a two-week script conference. “I want to keep my house,” she laments.

Thompson portrays Travers as a curmudgeon audiences can, if not love, at least be amused by. The author who wrote books that children love apparently has no love for children.

Boarding the plane for America, she interrogates another passenger about the infant in the young mother’s arms. “Will the child be a nuisance?” Travers asks coldly.

The writer’s acerbic lines increase after she arrives in L.A. First off, she says, the place smells of chlorine and sweat.

The Disney folks fill Travers’ room at the Beverly Hills Hotel with stuffed Disney characters and balloons. She finds all of it revolting.

As Travers lording it over everyone, Thompson provides the fun in “Saving Mr. Banks.” At the Disney studio, the uncooperative writer pours forth objections and hostility. She is fiercely protective of Mary Poppins. A folksy Tom Hanks steps in as Walt Disney.

Next to Thompson’s scene-dominating misanthrope, Hanks has a subtle nice-guy role to play. He stays in his place as a supporting character, avoiding the temptation to step into Thompson’s show.

Disney, one of Hollywood’s most powerful and visionary men and the host of a weekly television program that cast him as Uncle Walt to millions, assumes the role of negotiator. He soothes troubled relations between Travers and his studio’s screenwriters and songwriters, Richard and Robert B. Sherman.

“I feel corralled,” Travers protests. “Don’t intend for this film to be musical!”

But Disney is determined, something Hanks communicates in a quietly steely way. “I love Mary Poppins,” he tells Travers. “And you’ve got to share her with me.”

Depicting such important figures in children’s entertainment history, “Saving Mr. Banks” occasionally lapses into self-consciousness. That’s especially true when it fawns over the 1964 premiere of “Mary Poppins” in Hollywood.

But some miscalculations don’t stop the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith from effectively mapping Travers’ emotional passage to Hollywood and back.

The uplifting turn of the story likely is complete fiction, but it’s heart-tugging, joyful fiction, lifted up to the highest heights by a lovely song or two and Thompson’s career-capping performance.