Synopsis:In London in 1961, financially struggling author Pamela "P. L." Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly agrees to travel to Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) at the urging of her agent (Ronan Vibert). Disney has been courting Travers for 20 years, seeking to acquire the film rights to her Mary Poppins stories. His daughters fell in love with Travers' books and made him promise to make a film based on them. Travers, however, has been extremely cool toward letting Disney bring her creation to the screen because he is known primarily as a producer of animated films.
Her youth in Australia in 1906 is depicted through flashbacks, and is shown to be the inspiration for much of Mary Poppins. Travers was very close to her handsome and charismatic father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), who fought a losing battle against alcoholism.
Upon her arrival in Los Angeles, Travers is disgusted by what she feels is the city’s unreality, as well as by the naïve optimism and intrusive friendliness of its inhabitants, personified by her assigned limo driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti).
At the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers begins collaborating with the creative team assigned to develop Mary Poppins for the screen, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and music composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak respectively). She finds their presumptions and casual manners highly improper. She meets Disney in person, and he is jocular and familiar from the start, but she remains unfriendly.
Travers’ working relationship with the creative team is difficult from the outset, with her insistence that Mary Poppins is the enemy of sentiment and whimsy. Disney and his associates are puzzled by Travers’ disdain for fantasy, given the fantastical nature of the Mary Poppins story, as well as Travers’ own richly imaginative childhood existence. Travers has particular trouble with the team’s depiction of George Banks, head of the household in which Mary Poppins is employed as nanny. Travers describes Banks’ characterization as completely off-base and leaves the room distraught. The team begins to grasp how deeply personal the Mary Poppins stories are to Travers, and how many of the work’s characters are directly inspired by Travers’ own past.
Travers' collaboration with the team continues, although she is increasingly disengaged as painful memories from her past numb her in the present. Seeking to find out what’s troubling her, Disney suggests the two of them go to Disneyland. The visit to Disneyland, along with Travers’ developing friendship with her limo driver, the creative team’s revisions to the character of George Banks, and the insertion of a new song to close the film, help to soften Travers. Her imagination begins to reawaken, and she engages enthusiastically with the creative team.
This progress is upended, however, when Travers realizes that an animation sequence is planned for the film. Travers has been adamant from the start that any animated sequences would be unacceptable. She confronts and denounces a protesting Disney, angrily declaring that she will not sign over the film rights and returns to London. Disney discovers that Travers is writing under a pen name. Her real name is Helen Goff, and she’s actually Australian, not British. Equipped with new insight, he departs for London on the next flight, determined to salvage the film. Appearing unexpectedly at Travers’ residence, Disney opens up—describing his own less-than-ideal childhood, while stressing the healing value of his art—and urges her to shed her deeply-rooted disappointment with the world. Travers relents and grants him the film rights.
Three years later, in 1964, Mary Poppins is nearing its world premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Travers has not been invited because Disney fears that she will give the film negative publicity. Goaded by her agent, Travers returns to Los Angeles, showing up uninvited in Walt Disney’s office, and finagles an invitation to the premiere. She watches Mary Poppins initially with scorn, reacting with particular dismay to the animated sequence. She slowly warms to the film, however, and is ultimately surprised to find herself overcome by emotion, touched by the depiction of George Banks’ redemption, which clearly possesses a powerful personal significance for her.