On April 24, 1964, Walt Disney and his studio released the musical fantasy Mary Poppins onto the general public. It was hailed as an instant classic upon its release, a timeless fairy-tale about a magical nanny the likes of which children of all ages have adored for fifty-years. It had the best musical output by the Sherman Bros., great performances by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and David Tomlinson, and a brilliant sense of atmosphere that most films, then and now, fail to capture. I’m not going to waste my time telling you that the film is nothing short of a masterpiece; you know it, I know it, and a majority of the earth’s population knows it.
However, what most people don’t know (my parents, of all people, where surprised when they found out) is that Mary Poppins was based on a series of books written by Australian author P.L. Travers. Disney had been courting Ms. Travers for years trying to obtain the film rights to her creation, since the 1930s to be precise, at the urging of his then-adolescent daughters. It was only until 1961 when Travers finally relented and traveled to Burbank, California to discuss how her beloved creation would translate to the big screen. This is the general premise of Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the tumultuous pre-production of one of Disney’s greatest and the events that led Travers to create Mary Poppins in the first place.
Though the film is advertised as a making of the Mary Poppins film with Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, it is truly a character study about Travers’s character, past and present. Anyone who knew the real P.L. Travers will attest that she wasn’t the ‘warmest’ of people. She was rude, frank, and obsessive to detail. I have to give credit to the Disney team for not shying away from the fact that this was a woman that some people truly did not like. Yet, we discover why she acts the way she does during the course of the film. Mary Poppins, the book, came out of her childhood in Australia and her relationship with her father Travers Goff, played by a surprisingly good Colin Farrell. He was an alcoholic, barely holding on to his banking job, and it tore her apart to see the person she love so much slowly destroy himself that it scarred her for life. Mary Poppins became her way of dealing with girlhood demons and keeping her beloved father, the memories of a sweet, fantasizing father, alive. There’s a moment in the film where Travers, looking at how Disney initially planned to treat the Mr. Banks character, breaks down and tearfully asks why they would treat the father of the children as a cold villain much to the team’s utter confusion. More to the fact, she asks why they would treat her father as a cold villain. These moments, the examination of Traver’s childhood, are the soul of this production.
I write this out of slight disappointment at the Academy. Did I expect this to receive a best picture nomination? No, but I at least hoped that Ms. Emma Thompson would receive a nomination for Best Actress. To say she was snubbed is an understatement. She gives a great performance as P.L. Travers, capturing her overwhelming need to control the most sacred part of her life. She’s a difficult person work with, let alone tolerate and it is glorious. Her reaction to her hotel filled with Disney memorabilia is probably my favorite scene. Emma Thompson is the soul of Saving Mr. Banks, no doubt. Still, despite Thompson’s snub, I should at least be glad that Disney is being recognized at all (Both Frozen and the Mickey Mouse Short Get a Horse! are nominees in their respective categories and I highly recommend seeing both.).
I must admit, I was a little concerned with how Tom Hanks would portray Walt Disney. Out of all the figures who ruled Golden Age Hollywood, Disney was, and is, the most recognizable. Despite this, Tom Hanks puts in so much effort that you believe that he’s Disney, even if he looks nothing like the man himself. He displays the folksy, American midwest charm audiences associate with Walt. He is charming, trying everything humanely possible to satisfy Traver’s increasingly outlandish demands in order to obtain the film rights. This isn’t the ‘tell-all’ portrayal I think some people were expecting, but you do see some elements of the man that the studio fifteen years ago would never show. He does have a brief smoke, he utters a curse, and he doesn’t invite Travers to the premiere of the movie (out of fear of her reaction, but changes gears when she unexpectedly shows up). Yet, this is a good thing; it makes Walt Disney a relatable human being. He is a nice guy, but he isn’t without fault. The supporting cast is also excellent: B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman play the Sherman Brothers who get a funny line here and there. Paul Giamatti plays Traver’s Los Angeles driver Ralph, whom she slowly befriends as they get to know one another over the two weeks of film discussions.
My final praise has to go to the production design of the film. You feel as though you are taken back to both turn of the century Australia and early ‘60s Los Angeles. I also have to give credit to the fact that the production team actually went so far as to shoot at both the Disney studios and at the Disneyland theme park for a few scenes. If the film suffers any drawbacks is probably how one interprets the ending. Reality showed that P.L. Travers didn’t particularly like the Mary Poppins movie. The movie doesn’t exactly show it, though it is implied slightly that she warmed up to it. The argument of whether the Saving Mr. Banks Travers liked the movie or not is going to promote a lengthy discussion, one of which I don’t want to get wrapped up in right now.
Saving Mr. Banks is a surprisingly mature comedy-drama that shows that the Disney studios proper does have the chops to show that they can deliver entertainment that doesn’t involve pirates or princesses (which aren’t bad things themselves, mind you.). I’m actually quite tempted to see if they would consider ever doing a full-blown Walt Disney biopic; it’s something I do want to see. For what we do have, however, it is a delight. If you ever wanted to explore the pre-production process, or if you’re a fan of the Mary Poppins film, I highly recommend it. It’s a heartfelt and bittersweet tale about the creative process and the pains of a creator, but nothing a spoonful of light comedy can make it go down.
Saving Mr. Banks