Mind behind Mary Poppins

Mind behind Mary Poppins
Cast members Emma Thompson (L) and Tom Hanks attend the film premiere of "Saving Mr. Banks," at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California.

CALIFORNIA - In the leafy, idyllic setting that is the Disney Studios lot, author P.L. Travers made life hell for writers and composers and Walt Disney himself in a movie that portrays her as a withering, brick wall, toxic nightmare of a woman.

It is not quite the demeanour one would expect from the creator of one of the most beloved of children's books, Mary Poppins.

But Travers was so worried that Disney and his dream factory would ruin her story of the magical, flying British nanny that she subverted their work at every turn during two weeks at the Burbank studios in 1961. The entertaining push and pull between the acid-tongued Travers and the Disney storytellers is the heart of Saving Mr Banks, a film - from Walt Disney Co, of course - that opens in limited release in United States theatres today and nationwide a week later. It stars Oscar winners Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.

Thompson, in a role that has generated buzz of a Best Actress Oscar nomination, had no shortage of biographical material from which to pull together her haughty middle-aged Pamela Lyndon Travers. But six hours of actual recordings of Travers with her Disney writers and songwriters might have revealed the most about her personality and the suffering that lies beneath artistic creation. She cringed at the thought of animation and dancing penguins and even the songs themselves.

"You can hear in the juddering... the distress in it, of course," said Thompson, mimicking Travers' clipped British accent and tone of disdain.

"One of the most revealing things was that, overtly, she was here to cooperate. Covertly, she was here to sabotage and that was a wonderful thing to play with."

And sabotage she did, though obviously not enough to stop the film, which was released in 1964, three decades after the first Mary Poppins book, and went on to win five Oscars.

While the film is not quite suitable for the little ones like Mary Poppins - due to the dark parts of Travers' Australian childhood that inspired her work - it is expected to fare well at the box office as a holiday family film.

Saving Mr Banks is expected to gross US$16 million (S$20 million) to US$18 million in US and Canadian ticket sales during the Dec 20 weekend, according to Mr Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. The movie cost US$35 million to produce.

The film has garnered positive early reviews, with many critics praising the performances above all. But reviews noted a sympathetic depiction of Disney, even though he courted controversy as one of the most powerful studio bosses.

Director John Lee Hancock, who also directed the 2009 family drama The Blind Side, noted that the script was developed outside Disney, but was easily accepted by its top brass. The Disney family also had to give its approval.

"I don't think this movie could have been developed within the walls of Disney," he said. "I think they would have chipped away at Walt and made him flawless."

The Walt Disney portrayed by Hanks smokes, drinks scotch and curses and tries to get away without inviting Travers to the Mary Poppins premiere.

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