The movie that purports to tell the tale of how Mary Poppins’ disagreeable author, P.L. Travers, succumbed to giving Walt Disney the rights to turn her creation into a studio blockbuster is strangely mis-titled. The story presented involves a sensitive young girl growing up in the Australian boonies with an alcoholic father leading his wife and three daughter family into a tailspin of misery and financial ruin. Played by Colin Farrell, the father is handsome, dashing and adventurous - except when he’s a falling down drunk who gets fired from every job and leaves his bewildered and vulnerable wife on the verge of suicide. Strangely, the little girl who is meant to be P.L. Travers never manages to identify with the mother’s plight even as she grows into middle-agehood. Instead, she remains stuck in the muddy memories of having let down her profligate father - a guilt so intense that it carries forward a traumatic memory involving some dropped pears - much heavier in every way than Proust’s madeleines.
The dual story line of Travers’ past and present becomes tiresome quickly as Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers segues from intolerable to extremely annoying and the audience is left wondering why Uncle Walt wasn’t content to reap his mega-millions off household pests and gentle woodland creatures and leave grumpy British twits alone. I found out afterwards that the movie of Mary Poppins earned more than 100 million dollars in 1964, a whopping amount then, though today it’s the price of an apartment on west 57th street. So I guess Disney had the foresight to put up with Travers’ bad behavior with visions of eventually diving into his pool of money a la Scrooge McDuck.
The actress who plays the young Mrs. Travers is straight out of a Victorian portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron - a beautiful red-haired angel who redeems her part of the movie. Emma Thompson, her generation’s anti-Zionist Vanessa Redgrave, gives us even more reason to dislike her in this role which hopes that a sad backstory will make us more compassionate to a totally unsympathetic scold. I kept hoping that a time machine would allow the living Ms. Thompson to bond with the dead Mr. Disney over their mutual dislike of Jews, admittedly not relevant to the plot of the movie. But I did suppress a laugh at Disney’s recounting of his youthful days delivering newspapers for his stern father as if he were escaping the Warsaw ghetto to forage for food twice daily. It was cold in Missouri and he had no boots - miraculously he managed to move on from this trauma to become a studio mogul and the creator of fantasy empires that attract more than 119 million visitors annually worldwide. Hmmm, that story sounds a whole lot more interesting than the one in Saving Mr. Banks.
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