Saving Mr. Banks: A Spoon Full of Sugar

Written by Norman Gidney. Posted in Features

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

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, has produced and edited many of the articles on MiceChat over the years.

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  • fnord

    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.

  • gboiler1

    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.

    • Norman Gidney

      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.

  • 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.

    • thebear

      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.

    • Jungle Trekkie

      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.

  • RBNeale

    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.

  • Larry Parker

    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.

  • sturgeonslawyer

    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.

  • hollywood1939

    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.

  • Bob Gurr

    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.

    • Norman Gidney

      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.

    • realsurf

      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?

      • Norman Gidney

        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.

    • Susan Hughes

      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.

  • StevenW

    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.

  • JulieMouse

    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.

  • daveyjones

    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?

    • Mousecat

      No.

    • Country Bear

      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.

  • zeitzeuge

    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.

  • PinkMonorail

    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.

  • flayrah

    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.

  • mkyears

    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.

  • Wedbliss

    A couple of things. First, things happen differently in movies than they do in real life. Whoa. Mind blown.

    P.L. Travers was rich for the rest of her life from the monies she received from Walt’s movie. I don’t think she was that devastated. She got a sweet financial deal from Walt.

    At one point, after Walt’s death, Travers proposed doing a sequel to Poppins with the studio. Again, she may have been upset by the movie, but she did incorporate some elements of it into latter Poppins books, such as the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

    I think Saving Mr. Banks is going to win best picture at the Oscars. The old guard of the Academy loves movies about making movies, especially the way it’s portrayed in this movie.

  • Indy Hat Guy

    I honestly enjoyed the film. Yes, it’s fictitious. Yes, it’s based more on Travers. Did it entertain? YES! Will it get people interested in that story and see an actual documentary like “The Boys?” I believe so. Honestly, I would have enjoyed more Walt moments like him telling Richard and Robert to “Play it.” like he used to do. It’s a chance to suspend reality and just imagine Walt is in the park or you’re on the studio lot in the 60s. If you get caught up in that magic, the historical accuracies slip away in your mind. That being said, we are a Disney Parks site and while they did try really hard to recreate 1961 Disneyland (I went to the filming. The detail was beautiful.), Disneyland is the place that has changed the most and I compiled a list of nitpicks that I noticed. Did they take away from the scene/story? No, but huge Disney fans might notice these things:
    The Floral Mickey is the post-2004 version.
    The E.P. Ripley does not have the E.P. Ripley’s whistle.
    E.P. Ripley’s tender says “Disneyland Railroad” not “Santa Fe & Disneyland R.R.”
    Not sure the Excursion Train existed at this time. (Correction: They did, 1958)
    Current turnstiles.
    Omnibus goes around Town Square and not down Main Street, U.S.A.
    Long shot of Main Street, U.S.A. contains 1993 Partners statue.
    The shot walking down Main Street, U.S.A. clearly shows The Sherman Brother’s and Walt Disney’s honorary windows on Main Street. Both added very recently.
    The castle includes the Disney Family Crest/Coat of Arms above the castle portcullis that did not exist at that time.
    UGH. All of 1983 Fantasyland including the moved King Arthur’s Carousel and clear shots of Pinocchio’s Daring Journey.
    King Arthur’s Carousel has the very recently added safety handles and steps.

    I still recommend this movie highly. EVERYONE should go see it.

    • daveyjones

      i can forgive a lot of this, but leaving the partners statue in? that would have been SO EASY to erase out using CGI. walt never wanted an effigy of himself while he was alive—i think in honor of him and blane (the sculptor), that at least should have been corrected for the film.

  • Algernon

    Maybe they took a few Hollywood liberties, but at least there’s no car chase scene, and no Kung Fu fighting with Walt jumping ten feet in the air, doing a slow motion spin, and kicking two opponents in the face as they try to steal the script.

    • wendygirl1979

      This is too funny! I saw the movie last night and enjoyed it, but I have to admit I’d liked to have seen your version!

  • PatMcDuck

    I enjoyed the movie, but did find myself saying “Come ON” a few times. Will not say where, spoilers and all. I was wondering how Travers family got Mary Poppins hired, no one was working in the family at the time she arrived. Maybe I missed something.

    OK, the part that got ME was the pavers in front of the park, on the ground. I have one if these, right near the turnstiles, so I was distracted to see them on the ground. Couldn’t they have replaced them with regular bricks, using some sort of computer overlay program? Post-production?

    But I liked it, go see it!

    • Country Bear

      I believe Mary Poppins (in the real life sequences) was actually Mrs Goff’s sister (P.L.’s Aunt). That’s what i thought I heard in the film anyway.

  • wendygirl1979

    I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I have to admit I was apprehensive because of the rating (and I was afraid that the flashback events were going to a more violent place than they did) but I got into the story and was entranced. Man, Emma Thompson. She had the ugly cry going on! Also, Paul Giamotti was so good as the salt of the earth character.
    The costumers are also to be praised. I wanted 95% of the dresses shown!

  • rwsmith

    I like the PL Travers part of “the boys”. Pamela was a pill and after the premier told Walt, “we have a lot of work to do”. And Walt tells her “that ship has sailed”. I’m sure third will be a fine film. I read the script a few days ago and it was a good read, but like this article claims, it’s a fictionalized account.

  • Country Bear

    I loved the film and would highly recommend everyone see it. It has something for everyone.

    Richard Sherman recently said that P.L. Travers was far worse than Emma Thompson portrayed her as (which would have made her Satan-like). The woman was clearly unhappy with her life. The performances were engaging and I found myself wanting more when it was done. It would have been nice to see a little more Walt in this film, but I guess it was closer to reality in that respect.

    Any Disney fan or Mary Poppins fan will love this movie.

  • Polo33

    Guys your over engineering your comments here. Geez. This is based on a true story and if you really want realistic feedback on the accuracy of the film I highly suggest you watch Richatd Dhermans interviews. He served as consultant for the film abd was moved to tears many tines watching the finished product. Walt really did pursue PL Travers for 20 years , Walt really did bring her to Hollywood, Walt really did lock horns with her on film content , Walt really did dump PL Travers in the Sherman brothers studio with Don Degardi to hash out songs and story line, Walt really did NOT invite her to the premire of Mary Poppins but she really did show up.

    Hence, Savibg Mr Banks is pretty much on target. Enjoy it, it’s the first time EVER that Wakt was portrayed in a movie. That’s makes this movie very special for sure. :).

  • Polo33

    Fixing some of my typos in my post above. On the 50th anniversary DVD Blu-ray of Mary Poppins Richard Sherman gives an excellent interview/special of the making of the film and just plain storytelling is a great scene where he is watching The production Walt comes into the office during feed the birds, Richard is moved to tears literally just telling the story. I also have an even better interview about the making of Mary Poppins from the 40th anniversary DVD and all the stories Center told by Robert Sherman Richard Sherman Peter Ellenshaw and so many others all match up very nicely to saving Mr. Banks

  • loaloa55

    Legendary writer Harlan Ellison was invited at the Premiere and did a video to say what he thinks ofthe movie, and SPECIALLY of its non accuracy. You should watch it, and as always Harlan spell it out!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNIFEHN1_cY

  • Polo33

    Harian Ellison is a sci fi author whom NEVER worked for Walt Disney or the Disney organization. He has a reputation for sueing big studios and to me appears to be of that strange “anti Disney” crowd. You can hear that clearly in his overview on his views if ” Walt Disney”.

    Watch ” The Boys” or listen to all the recent Richard Sherman interviews. The film captures the essence of the events that made Mary Poppins and for the first time shows us Walts efforts. It was Walt thst made the deal happen.

  • Disneykin Kid

    I saw the movie, and enjoyed it. Being a Disney fan, my attention was held to find out how it would work out in the end. I never thought that Tom Hanks was Walt Disney, but there were a few times that I was willing to accept that I was watching a movie with Walt as a character.

    I want to make a point, though – you said that when Travers (Thompson) cried at the premiere, Walt leaned over to comfort her, and that was a stab at sentimentality. Walt says “It’s ok”, but Travers said, something to the effect, “I’m not crying at that, I just can’t abide the use of animation”. So actually it’s not a sentimental moment, and they did hint that Travers was still unsatisfied at the end.

    If Walt was not in town when the Shermans and DaGradi worked with Travers, what I want to know is, how did Travers actually give Disney permission in the end? Did the scene where Walt finally persuade Travers really happen? I would think that it would have taken a personal appeal from Walt to finally persuade Travers, but when you say that Walt wasn’t around, it makes me ask that question.

  • Polo33

    According to my recollection from reading the book “Walt the man behind the myth” The scene in the end of saving Mr. Banks where Walt shows up in London at PL Travers home is in reality how he really secured the deal first . She came to LA to meet with the ” Boys” and Degradi and hammer things out after Walt already worked his charm in London. I believe that was the order but perhaps others are aware of more detail .

    By the way I totally agree with you that there was way too little Walt Disney in the movie and had there been more “Walt” and less Travers this movie would have been far better abd performed much better at box office. I know the authors of saving Mr. Banks wrote it more about Travers but Disney Inc had to approve it and IMHO should’ve insisted on far more Walt moments vs the drab depressing PL Travers.

  • fnord

    Hanks voice is higher pitched than Walt’s, but
    in quieter, persuasive scenes, he dropped it
    down and managed to channel Disney very
    effectively. I loved the film.
    Frozen, not so much.
    (I’m a snow queen fan since I saw the Russian animated version in the 60s.)
    I still think if Alice is going into refurbishment, because of it’s position next to the Matterhorn, and the boat load of moola the film has made, Alice
    should depart and make way for Elsa and Anna.

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