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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?