P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins (played by Emma Thompson), needs money and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) will pay her for the rights to Mary Poppins. P. L. Travers is appalled by what she sees as Disney’s vulgarity. There is a back story of her upbringing in Australia, her father is an alcoholic bank clerk (played by Colin Farrell), her mother can’t cope and they get a nanny on whom Mary Poppins is based. Eventually Travers and Disney learn more about each other and we end up with the film premiere of Mary Poppins.
There is a lot of comedy in the culture clash between the posh cut-glass accented martinet P. L. Travers and the folksy Walt Disney. Travers cultivated poets and writers and had been on the ideological left whereas Disney was a corporate tyrant in paternalist disguise. I find it regrettable that Disney poured his hokey syrup over the 20th century’s fantasy world for the young. I have no time for his anti trade unionism or his flirtation with McCarthyism, and it is easy to see why Travers, with her rather darker Mary Poppins would resist Disney’s blandishments. In the end it must have been the money. I wonder if children at the time would have preferred the jolly film to the more austere books. We have become so habituated to writers succumbing to corporate schlock that it is easy to make Travers look like a cranky curmudgeon. I had to resist thinking of her as such since we’ve got the hindsight benefit of the much liked film. I prefer her resistance to the salesmanship of Disney, it’s as if she could see the route that cinema would take and how we’ve replaced emotional investment in stories with formulaic banalities. Tom Hanks does a very avuncular Walt, traipsing around his vulgar empire like a cartoon storyteller. Emma Thompson is superb as the emotionally damaged daughter of an alcoholic. We learn that Mary Poppins is really more about the bank clerk father who has us all dancing with a kite at the end of the film. The Australian story gives the film another sort of Disney gloss, the frontier family coping against the odds. It works as a real life fable even if it’s not a happy one. We only see the stars of Mary Poppins for a moment. I’m always amused by the criticism Dick Van Dyke got for his supposedly terrible cockney accent in the film, as it’s no worse than any rent-a-Londoner’s accent in the Hollywood of the 40s, 50s, or 60s. If they were his model the blame should be theirs, not Van Dyke’s. They have no excuse, they were Brits who played up to the “cor blimey guvnor” limey of Hollywood fantasy. When Disney tells Travers about his harsh childhood, I felt some sympathy for him and presumably that worked well on Travers. Great entertainment.