‘Poppins’ film was no jolly holiday

On one side is Emma Thompson playing P.L. Travers, author of the “Mary Poppins” books, who needs money but is reluctant to let the Hollywood monsters meddle with her Mary. On the other side is Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, the man who spent 20 years and two highly contentious weeks wrestling those rights away from the stubborn author.

This Travers-Disney battle is the basis for the Dec. 20 (subject to change) release “Saving Mr. Banks,” a Disney-produced account of those two weeks in 1961 that Travers spent torturing Disney and his “Mary Poppins” production team with a constant stream of, “No, no, no. That’s not how it is.” We know how the story ends. “Mary Poppins” was not just an Academy Award-winning movie but also a fantasy film that appeals to generation after generation.

Sitting in a posh suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel — the same hotel where Travers stayed in 1961 — Thompson, 54, is much blonder and more relaxed than the pinched and uptight brunette she plays in “Mr. Banks.”

“I love this movie. I love it,” Thompson says. “I hear the quibbles, but perhaps it’s my own connections with loss and fathers that make me think there’s so much in it for all of us. My friend and producer Lindsay Doran saw the film and was in pieces, just crying away. She said, ‘Why don’t they just call it “Father Issues”?’”

Thompson’s father, English actor Eric Thompson, died in 1982 at age 53 (Emma was 23 and just beginning a career that has netted her two Academy Awards), and “Saving Mr. Banks” pays close attention to the relationship between Travers, who was born Helen Goff in Australia, and her father, Travers Goff, who died when she was 9.

“We all have father issues in one way or another,” Thompson says. “We come back again and again to the reality that our relationship with ourselves is profoundly and terrifyingly dependent on those early atomic relationships with parents. Mrs. Travers was in emotional pain. Having swallowed her father whole, she had to metabolize that all her life.”

As a child, Thompson says she devoured books by British authors such as Leon Garfield, Alan Garner, Joan Aiken and Travers.

“I found the ‘Mary Poppins’ books remarkable,” she says. “They’re funny, dark and quite brutal. Mrs. Travers was tough. If you’ve read the books, you can understand why she would be so protective for fear that Mr. Disney might make Mary careen toward sparkle and whimsy.”

Having made her own pair of movies about a magical nanny — “Nanny McPhee” and “Nanny McPhee Returns” — Thompson says she knew she was right for the role of the cranky, complicated, damaged Travers, whom Hanks has described as “hell in a gas bag.” Thompson says her public persona, especially in England, is already associated with Nanny McPhee. And she knew Hanks would be perfect as Disney because, as she puts it, “his public persona is Disney-esque.”

“Tom and I have been looking for something to work on together for a long time,” Thompson says. “I couldn’t think of anything better than this. It’s not a romance, not a husband-and-wifey thing. It’s about two artists crossing swords, two storytellers who were both, in their own ways, quite ruthless and who were very used to getting their own way. They were certainly not used to people saying no.”

The fact that Travers is downright rude to Disney and his team actually delighted Thompson.

“We’re all so bloody polite all the time, Americans particularly,” she says. “It’s bliss to see someone so rude. We act quite a lot of the time in conflict with what we really feel.”

Though “Mary Poppins” almost didn’t make it to the big screen — and Travers, who died in 1996 at age 96, continued to express her disapproval of the film — Thompson has always been a fan of the Julie Andrews-Dick Van Dyke musical.

“Ichnographically, it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of work,” she says. “Some of the things in it are remarkable and some of the images are genius, like in ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ when she pushes the plume of smoke and it turns into a staircase. It’s Dali-esque.”

Travers was adamant that there be no animation in “Mary Poppins,” and when she found out there were going to be animated dancing penguins, she flipped out and the whole project nearly came tumbling down (she also demanded that the color red not appear in the movie). Thompson agrees that the “Jolly Holiday” sequence in which Van Dyke cavorts with the penguins is “fairly difficult.”

“But that sequence also has the carousel horses breaking free and galloping across the countryside,” she says. “That’s the ultimate fantasy of a carousel, isn’t it? Once you’re free you can ride the horse wherever you want. That film is such a beautiful, such an extraordinary piece of work. It was made at a time when Disney and his people were at their zenith.”

Later in the day, Thompson attended a news conference alongside Hanks, and when asked by a journalist how they thought Travers would react to the film, Hanks replied, “Silently. She’s dead.”

But Thompson said that Travers had a healthy ego and would respond something like, “It’s an absolutely ridiculous film. It bears no relationship whatsoever to what was happening. But it’s about me. At last.”