If you were to ask those who know movies to make a list of the most enjoyable musical films, with the most loved songs, ever, “Mary Poppins” — with music and lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman — would be up near (or at) the very top of the list. Walt Disney called them “the boys” and their songs defined the characters, created the fun, deepened the emotion, drove the story. From the heart-tugging sincerity of “Feed the Birds” to the toe-tapping exuberance of “(Let’s Go) Fly a Kite,” their musical score is memorable – and hummable – by generations. And yet, the work they did on that movie was a constant struggle — with the Shermans, DaGradi and Walt Disney himself on one side – and the book’s author, P.L. Travers, on the other. This is the story of that battle. As a movie, it gets better as it goes along.
Emma Thompson is convincing as Travers, but the real surprise here is Tom Hanks’ performance as Disney. With his padded shoulders, Missouri accent, neatly-trimmed mustache, and tight-lipped speech, Hanks captures Disney’s public persona. The scriptwriters add the Disney genius. This film is fun, but not quite in the same class as the movie whose story it tells. The limitation comes from its subject matter; in trying to be truthful to the icy woman at the center of the conflict, it can never quite be as emotional, as warm and as magical as it wants to be. You should see it, but after you do, if you want to see a movie that more clearly demonstrates the talent of the Sherman Brothers, I would heartily recommend “The Boys,” a documentary made by their sons. That movie is terrific.