Saving Mr. Banks: A Spoon Full of Sugar

Written by Norman Gidney. Posted in Features

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Published on December 19, 2013 at 3:30 am with 44 Comments

There is a moment in the new Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks, where P.L. Travers, flawlessly played by Emma Thompson, is overcome with a new musical composition hammered out by the Sherman Brothers. She begins to sing along with them while waltzing in the studio with Walt Disney himself. It is a rapturous moment of breakthrough, in which Uncle Walt seems to have finally gotten through to the old hag and has her approval at long last. As I watched the scene, I had a hard time ignoring the fact that such an event never really took place during those difficult meetings between Travers, the Sherman Brothers, and screen writer Don DaGradi. This was a lingering feeling that I had to repeatedly ignore throughout the film if I was going to simply enjoy the story being told on screen.

Minor spoilers ahead.  If you are totally unfamiliar with the history of the production of Mary Poppins, and want to be surprised, then proceed with caution.

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Tom Hanks plays Uncle Walt with an infectious charm.

Disney Picture’s new prestige flick for the holiday season, Saving Mr. Banks, tells the story of the epic creative battle between Walt Disney and author, P.L. Travers during the development of the classic film, Mary Poppins. As the story opens, Travers has been pursued for 20 years by Mr. Disney for the rights to produce a film based on her best selling children’s story. Afraid that her beloved Mary Poppins would become another one of Disney’s “cartoons,” she guards her intellectual property from possible exploitation with a fiery hatred for sentiment. But dwindling book sales and a tenacious agent finally convince her to seriously consider the potential windfall that a movie adaptation of her book could bring.

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Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers (Left) Paul Giamatti as Ralph (Right)

Despite her reservations, P.L. Travers is coaxed into visiting Hollywood, California to discuss bringing her book to the big screen with screenwriter Don DaGradi, played by Bradley Whitford, and the song writing duo, Robert and Richard Sherman, wonderfully played by B.J. Novack and Jason Schwartzman. Her prickly personality takes many by surprise, including her limo driver Ralph, in a warm portrayal by Paul Giamatti. Ralph is a salt-of-the-earth fellow who deflects each of Travers’ stabs with a simple, warm smile and friendly word.

During the creative meetings with the Shermans, Travers is a relentlessly demanding person to work with. In a particularly jaw-dropping moment, the author begins picking apart the screen directions in the script with a fine tooth comb. Another time, Walt Disney is called in from his office because Travers insists the color red not be used in the film. These scenes are deliciously fun to watch as Emma Thompson commands each attention, recalling Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada.

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With each quizzical behavior exhibited by Travers, we get flashbacks to her childhood. The parallel storyline is deftly woven throughout the film, depicting Pamela’s tragic childhood in Australia. Yes, Travers was really an Aussie, though she is often thought of as British. We meet her handsome, fanciful father, Travers Goff, portrayed by Colin Farrell. Travers is a natural storyteller and engages his children with wild tales of make-believe and play time. He is also, however, finding it increasingly difficult to hide his nasty bouts of alcoholism. Could Travers’ relationship with her father have anything to do with her devotion to the characters in her books, in particular, the patriarchal Mr. Banks? We are certainly led to believe so.

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Colin Ferrel (right) leads his family to the country for a new life.

Referring again to the music studio, with Travers singing along to “Let’s go Fly a Kite”, a scene which epitomizes but the film’s greatest strength and potential weakness. When reality proves too complicated to explain or to economize into the structure of a two hour movie, Director John Lee Hancock is ready with a healthy dose of sentiment to help the medicine go down. Not just a spoonful of sugar, but the whole bag. In reality, Walt was nowhere near the studios while Travers was in town. He high-tailed it to Palm Springs when she was terrorizing the poor Shermans. To be clear, Saving Mr. Banks plays like a work of fiction inspired by true events and circumstances. If you go to the film looking for hard facts you will leave unsatisfied.

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BJ Novack (Left) portrays Robert Sherman, Jason Schwartzman (Right) plays Richard Sherman

Of course, Uncle Walt finally wrestles the rights to Mary Poppins out of Travers hesitant hands. After doing so, Saving Mr. Banks could have ended with the hero of the story victorious over the slain dragon. But the pic becomes a little ambitious and admirably attempts to include the awkward story of how Travers was not invited to the premiere of the film. Hopping a plane to Hollywood, Pamela suddenly shows up in Walt’s office, ready for the glitzy Hollywood shindig.

Travers ultimately takes her seat in Grauman’s Chinese Theater, just in front of Walt, for the premiere of Mary Poppins. We see the film through her reactions. Thompson exhibits her talents in expressing the wide range of emotions Travers may have had seeing Walt’s creation. She even begins to break down and cry, provoking Uncle Walt to lean over and tell her that everything will be okay. There’s that sentiment again.

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Travers did actually cry at the premiere. Several first hand accounts attest to that. But the real reason for the breakdown is a mystery. It is entirely possible that the reason for the breakdown wasn’t on account of any positive feelings. Sadly, an explanation of the catharsis that Travers may have felt is abandoned. Instead, the film paints itself into a corner, suddenly ending as though everything turned out right. The real world account is that Travers actually had a list of changes that she wanted made to the film. But that ship had already sailed.

It is clear that the producers wanted to tell an uplifting, entertaining story.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se.  It is a Disney film after all.  But it is nearly a work of fiction.  If you can set aside your knowledge of what actually happened, Saving Mr. Banks is an entertaining bit of cinema. Emma Thompson may even get an Oscar nod as she is just so much fun to watch.  Hanks, while hardly convincing as Walt Disney, gives it the old college try and has infectious fun doing so.

Banks opens nationwide on Friday December 20th. The early reviews are extremely positive with moviegoers rating the film practically perfect. This isn’t a film for kids, nor is the subject matter of Travers’ youth necessarily appropriate for them. But it is a film that Disney fans should enjoy.

What are your thoughts on Saving Mr. Banks?

About Norman Gidney

Norman Gidney, also known as Fishbulb, produces and edits many of the articles on MiceChat. Tune in every Tuesday for the Orlando Parkhopper and every Friday for In The Parks. But you'll also find his photos in the Weekly Round Up, SAMLAND, and numerous other columns on the site.

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44 Comments

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  1. I grew up seeing walt on tv every Sunday introducing that weeks program of his show, and am looking forward to seeing him portrayed on the big screen.
    I’m not a huge Hanks fan, but he no doubt grew up watching Walt, too, so I’m interested to see his take.

  2. Truthfully, how many movies based on actual events embellish the story to make it screen worthy? I would say almost none stick to the true story, but that’s why we go to the movies. For me, give me the movie then if I’m still interested I’ll go read about the truth, but entertain me first. It’s similar to reading the book before seeing the movie for me. Having preconceived information about the story often ruins the movie because the story is edited or twisted around to make it work for a film audience.
    It’s interesting that reviews are so different as well. I’ve seen it on a top 25 of the year but also heard a local reviewer pan it.
    I love Tom Hanks and since it features Disney it should be a wonderful watch.

    • Yes exactly! It’s not a bad film. It’s actually a very polished piece of entertainment. If you check your knowledge of actual events at the door the film plays out nicely. But should a film be judged on account of accuracy or adherence to history? Or should it be assessed on its own merits as a story in its own right? A perplexing conundrum when reviewing such a film, and one I tried to convey in this review.

  3. I’ve got to say that I absolutely LOVED this film. Yes, it is contrived and only loosely based on the facts, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

    I’d really like to see Emma Thompson get an Oscar for this film.

    • I agree with Dusty’s comments 100% and have already seen the film twice. Your review is so comprehensive that I’m not sure that anyone who reads it will still need to go see the movie.

      • Go see the film folks. This review only scratches the surface of this beautiful picture.

    • How did they do with recreating the 1960s? Is that aspect of the film fun to watch?

      • Overall, it feels like the 60′s. But the Disneyland scene was sort of funny. I don’t think most folks will give it a second thought, but the diehard Disneyland fans will likely be distracted as they find all the inconsistencies. But it’s all in good fun.

  4. I enjoyed the film very much, even knowing how little of it actually happened (I’ll bet the feel of those meetings with DaGradi and the Shermans is spot on, however). I never really bought Tom Hanks as Walt Disney; although I’d seen his accent praised as “spot-on”, he never sounded anything to me other that Tom Hanks putting on an accent… I would say the movie is similar in many respects to “The Kings Speech”. Both tell a true story (with varying adherence to the truth) in a pleasant, enjoyable and non-challenging way. Neither is a landmark of cinema, but you come out of both having thoroughly enjoyed the time you spent with those characters. I’m not bothered by changes to the “true” story (although I’ll admit it was fun to play “spot the historical inaccuracies”). I’m recommending this movie to everyone I know.

  5. Placing Walt Disney by name in fictitious events that never occurred seems disrespectful to the man so many of us revere. I don’t intend to see the movie on that account alone.

    • It isn’t as bad as you think Larry. The film is loosely based on what happened. But since it’s impossible to know the true motivations of the characters or how much their actions were influenced by their childhoods, there’s a lot of guess-work going on in this picture. But the general idea of the picture is on the right track and the film is absolutely worth seeing.

  6. This is a whitewash. Pamela Travers was not an “old hag” but a creator seeking to protect her most precious thing, her creation. And, while she came to like the Sherman Brothers’s songs, she went to her grave hating what Disney had made of that creation. She left the premiere of the film in tears, and they were not happy tears.

  7. Yeah she wasn’t happy about the movie. From what I gather, she wanted the animation gone and wasn’t a fan of Dick Van Dyke and wanted the whole movie remade after the premiere.

    I want to see it because it looks entertaining. The fact that it shows a scene of Walt taking Travers to Disneyland when he never did should show how much fiction rides along with fact in this movie.

  8. Permit me, as one of a handful of folks who actually worked 12 years with Walt Disney and might still be alive to blog a review, to make an observation. It’s a MOVIE…just enjoy it. Two creative and unique persons of persistence and integrity jousting for conflicted outcomes…played by two persons of equal characteristics. It’s a MOVIE! I enjoyed these four individuals, even as I knew I’d be on the lookout for accurate “Waltisms” based on my first hand knowledge of Walt from a half century ago. I was delighted to see and hear very accurate little mannerisms and spoken words showing the non-fictional truth the films creators obviously researched faithfully.

    That little “early warning” cigarette cough as Walt approached…someone uttering “man is in the forest” as his presence was imminent. The stern eyebrow set when things were not as he’d wanted…the obvious eternal persistence to get things right – that was just so Walt. That much of the movie I can historically vouch for.

    • Totally agreed there Bob. If you simply enjoy it as a MOVIE, it’s fine. The references and subtle nuances to actual events are a nice flourish to be sure.

    • Thanks Bob, for pointing out IT’S A MOVIE. My Uncle Warren Senate worked with Walt (you might have crossed paths) and he always admired his tenacity. I think that is what this picture is about.
      Do these people think pirates acted like Johnny Depp?

      • Lol. Realsurf that is a GREAT analogy. But the difference is that where the Pirates films set out to be nothing more than swashbuckling tales of mystsism and adventure, Mr banks anchors itself firmly in the real world and actual events.

        If you can go into the film acknowledging liberties taken for the sake of dramatic structure and telling a story then you should. This is an entertaining piece of work to be sure. This isn’t a documentary. To claim that Saving Mr Banks is bad simply because it isn’t accurate would be tantamount to Travers dismissal of what Walt made of her stories because they didn’t follow the book.

        That’s the whole point of the review.

    • Thanks for your comment Mr. Bob Gurr. 99.99% of the comments left on micechat.com come from “armchair critics” who express their opinions with all the validity you would expect from social media, which is none!
      You knew the man. You worked with him. So your opinion “is” valid as far as I’m concerned. And yes…it’s just a movie, not a documentary. And the purpose of a movie is to entertain. If guests leave the theater feeling down, it serves no purpose to even make such a movie.
      And of all the movie making entities out there, “Disney” is there to bring those good feelings to the audience, in exactly the same way the theme parks are operated. It’s all about bringing a smile to people’s faces and adding something positive to their lives, even if it’s just for an hour and 40 minutes or so.

  9. P.L. Travers cried because she hated the movie. She never spoke to Walt Disney ever again after the premiere, nor did Walt ever sought her out. The animosity was real. In her contract, she forbid Robert and Richard Sherman from ever contributing any new songs to the existing story or sequels. She hated the fact that Mary Poppins is a musical. She would never sing along. It is unreal. FAKE.

    I might still see it, but I presume it is pure fiction.

  10. Great review of a very worthwhile film! I thoroughly enjoyed the movie both times that I was lucky enough to see it! Yes, you must check your Disney Historian knowledge at the door; but if you can do that, you will enjoy this wonderful piece of entertainment. I loved the sentiment, in part because I entered the theater knowing Walt was not the one who convinced Travers to sign on the dotted line and certainly never took her to Disneyland; I was not expecting a documentary, but a film loosely based on real people and a real event.

  11. i’m only interested in one thing, really. how does the park look in the film? i was miffed to see them on the present day carousel in the trailer (with travers on julie andrews’ horse, jingles, no doubt). 1983 new fantasyland was all around them.

    did they alter any of this with CGI to make these shots and others more authentic to 1961?

    • No.

    • The camera angles and tight shots/close-ups for most of this sequence make it hard to really see what’s behind the characters. I thought it was a pretty safe approach and honestly, it would be difficult to tell what was or wasn’t from 1961. The sequence was very nostalgic from my perspective and allowed you to go somewhere and experience something none of us would have been able to. It doesn’t distract or detract from the film at all in my opinion.

  12. From the moment I remember reading about the film, I never once thought it would be any sort of actual portrayal. It’s Disney after all and it’s going to end on a sugary sweet note no matter what. I’m excited to see it.

  13. It’s a fairy-tale retelling of a story that would be bitter and depressing if told documentary-style, but it’s such a fascinating story to tell, I’m glad that they did it.

    For a much more realistic telling of this tale, see The Boys.

  14. The Disney organization tells stories designed to be entertaining. I don’t think anyone should enter into a Disney movie and expect to experience the historical truth. However I think it’s unfair for actual people, locations, events and times to be manipulated without some sort of disclaimer or explanation that this is a story ‘based on facts’ and may not be what actually occurred. (Which may be in the movie, I haven’t seen it yet).
    As far as I know Bob Gurr is the only person who posts to this board who knew and worked with each of the main characters in the movie – and Mr Gurr, did you work on the animatronics in Mary Poppins, also? So if he says the movie story is a good representation, that’s recommendation enough for me. The only person who would know more is Richard Sherman, and I don’t think he posts.

  15. I think in a way the point of the movie is to realize that we sometimes have to blur the line of fact with a little fiction. Travers wasn’t able to forgive her father in person but instead she wrote a fictional story loosely based on her past.Sometimes we have to create our own stories because life doesn’t always give us what we want. I knew everything that was in this movie was not going to be completely accurate but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the story made me feel something.