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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  • 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.