Don’t gag. But this movie about how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) finally persuaded P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him make a movie of her Mary Poppins books is a tasty swig of holiday cheer. Ms. Travers (Pamela to a select few) was a piece of work. And Thompson is a spit-spot pleasure in the role, sharp-tongued and deadpan-hilarious. Mary Poppins, the flying nanny to the very British Banks family, could be stern. But for sass, Pamela has it all over her creation, played by an Oscar-winning Julie Andrews in the beloved 1964 film. Thompson’s scenes with Hanks, splendid at showing the conniving side of a goody-goody icon, are irresistible fun. Meeting Disney on the studio lot in Burbank in 1961, she tells him she hates his silly cartoons, abhors musicals, and wants to return home to England and deny him film rights.
Pamela proves instantly allergic to California, telling her driver (Paul Giamatti, wonderful), “It smells like chlorine and sweat.” She reacts badly to the Poppins script, co-written by Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and worse to the less than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs of the Sherman brothers, played with perfect comic pitch by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak.
Does Ms. Travers have a heart? The script, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, uses flashback to show she does. Pamela, born Helen Goff, is an Aussie girl (Annie Rose Buckley) raised on the rough outback by an adored workaholic father (an outstanding Colin Farrell) who fuels his doomed dreams with drink. In the Poppins books, it’s the father, Mr. Banks, whom nanny Mary comes to save, not the children. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) does his best to mesh past and present without rank tear-jerking. He doesn’t always succeed. But Thompson and Hanks, both worthy of Oscar nods, certainly do. Thanks to them, this movie about the making of a movie hits the sweet spot. There’s magic in it.