Saving Mr. Banks
How Walt Disney won over Mary Poppins
After Mary Poppins became a literary phenomenon in 1934, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks: Captain Phillips) promised his daughters he would make their favorite book into a movie. A lucrative film adaptation is a dream offer for many, but Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson: Love Punch) didn’t share the Disney vision. Horrified by all things animated and kitschy, Travers fought for 20 years to keep her beloved book out of the hands of “the Man Behind the Mouse.”
But circumstances change as this movie shows. In danger of financial ruin, Travers begrudgingly allows Disney to option her book. She keeps script approval and travels to California to torpedo the film while keeping the money.
In the land of sun and fun, Travers reviles all things Disney. She finds Americans boorish, she despises the music written by the famed Sherman brothers and she disdains Walt. She picks at the grammar of the songs, forbids the use of the color red and assures Disney that he is devoid of the intellectual capacity to understand her book.
Slowly, Disney and his team realize that Mary Poppins is a personal story about Travers’ childhood. As the production team tries to earn her approval, she reminisces about the inspiration for her beloved tale.
Is Travers ready to deal with the trauma of her past? Can the Sherman brothers win her over with a song?
Obviously, Disney eventually got his way.
The question is whether Saving Mr. Banks is an accurate portrayal of how the mogul made the movie. Since it’s produced by Walt Disney Pictures, you may not be surprised to learn that Walt and his entire Mouse Squad are portrayed as wonderful people while Travers is a pernicious Brit who needs to lighten up. The film is the perfect revenge.
Saving the movie from defaming Travers’ memory is Thompson’s extraordinary performance. She imbues the author with an inner neurosis that makes her barbs and fastidious habits hilarious instead of annoying. It’s a difficult line to walk, balancing vulnerability with a prickly nature, but Thompson succeeds with every arched eyebrow and exasperated sigh. When Travers melts under the heavy charms of Disneyland, Thompson makes the transition a believable emotional journey.
As Walt Disney, Hanks has the easier job. He’s all charm and ease as he tries to win over the stiff Brit. Still, Hanks hints at a steely core hidden well by years of practiced charisma. It’s hard to ruffle Walt, but when he’s in a bind, you see the strong-willed man who built an empire from the sketch of a mouse.
The film may not be the gospel truth, but it’s a dreamy, often hilarious look at the power of movies. Using the Sherman brothers’ original score from Mary Poppins, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) examines how a song can change a mood and lift spirits. Hancock’s movie is a loving tribute to the magic of Disney, and ironically probably a film Travers would have despised in real life. It also offers an interesting look at life in the Disney studios and just how many people it takes to make a classic children’s movie.
If you can still hum a few bars of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” this is the perfect holiday film. See it for Thompson, who will certainly earn award recognition for her tour-de-force performance. Or see it to recapture the joy of Mary Poppins, even if Travers would disapprove. It’s also an inside look at how Disney magic triumphs, no matter the story.