Being the holiday season, many of us have no doubt dug the ol’ Love Actually DVD out for its annual viewing, and central to that film’s yank-at-the-heartstrings theme is the powerhouse performance turned in by Emma Thompson. As fine as that work was, however, it pales in comparison to Thompson’s latest, as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks.

Here her curmudgeonly take on Travers is vital to balancing out the film’s almost too-sweet story of how Walt Disney strove to bring the Poppins tale to the screen in the early 60s. And Thompson, certain to earn her fifth Oscar nomination, can take much of the credit for making the film Oscar-worthy itself.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) has essentially created two films– one set in 1961 Burbank as Travers and Disney butt heads over Mary Poppins‘ production, and the other in 1906 Australia, as a young Travers has her life shaped by her alcoholic father, suicidal mother, and the arrival of the nanny who would be come the basis for her famous creation.

Both stories are first-rate, and they together combine for a film that is even greater than the sum of its parts. The Travers/Disney story line is often hilarious, frequently touching, and never wanes– a tall order, given that it is interspersed with the gut-wrenching drama of her childhood. There, Colin Farrell shines as Travers’ father, offering up a performance that deftly balances his paternal devotion with his devotion to the bottle. And first-timer Annie Rose Buckley is brilliant as the young Travers.

In Burbank, Tom Hanks perfectly embodies Disney himself (right down to his pencil mustache), and the supporting cast, including Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as song-meisters Robert & Richard Sherman, and Bradley Whitford as Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi, are also a lot of fun.

It’s Thompson, though, fueled by razor-sharp script by Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel, who steals the show right out from under everyone. In many other actresses’ hands, Travers may have come across as completely insufferable, but Thompson’s spit-spot performance is enthralling. And when Travers finally starts to come around, the twinkle Thompson hides behind her eyes is the icing on the cake.

Saving Mr. Banks does occasionally feel overly sappy (it is a Disney production after all), but there’s no denying that all involved have created a wonderfully entertaining film about a most interesting story… and in a most delightful way.

4.5/5 stars