Emma Thompson gives good battleaxe. She is on Oscar-winning form in ‘Saving Mr Banks’, playing ‘Mary Poppins’ author Pamela Travers as a cross between Jeremy Paxman and Maggie Smith in ‘Downton Abbey’. On a plane from London to Los Angeles, she peers down her spectacles at a toddler, lips pinched: ‘Will the child be a nuisance? It is an 11-hour flight.’ Mrs T is on her way to lock horns with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who has been courting her for the film rights to her beloved Mary Poppins for 20 years. Flat broke, she can’t say no, but Disney stands for everything she hates: ‘I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.’
You have to feel a bit sorry for Travers. This a Disney film, so Uncle Walt gets an easy ride, twinkly and kind – with no sign of the controlling, darkly driven side of the man. It’s Travers who gets lumbered with the issues – daddy issues. Flashbacks (a few too many) to her chaotic childhood in Australia explain why she’s a stickler for rules. Colin Farrell (who also twinkles, but not half as much as Hanks), plays her alcoholic father – a dreamer full of tall tales to cast spells on little girls, but not enough sense to hold down a job. Like the Banks family in ‘Mary Poppins’, this lot are in need of a firm hand and a stiff broom. And here we get a glimpse of the inspiration for ‘Mary Poppins’, when Travers’s aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) sweeps into the house with a carpet bag.
Back in LA, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak offer a cute double act as the ‘Mary Poppins’ songwriters, who hide their draft of ‘Supercalifragilistic’ from Travers’s prying eyes. The whole thing goes down with a few bucketloads of sugar. What keeps it from becoming sticky schmaltz is Thompson, who plays Travers with wit and warmth, adding a spoonful of spoilt child to help the battleaxe go down. Think of ‘Saving Mr Banks’ as a welcome-to-Christmas movie. A little too sugary, but in keeping with the season.