Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson as PL Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney 
"Mary Poppins" is possibly my favorite Disney movie of all time; thus began my long infatuation with Julie Andrews. I was of two minds about seeing "Saving Mr. Banks." Disney has become such a behemoth - the multi-billion dollar empire of the Mouse - buying up both creative properties like Star Wars and the Muppets and media companies like ESPN and ABC, that I found myself resistant to a self-aggrandizing account of the making of "Mary Poppins" that, like the Disney Christmas Parade, was nothing more than a long form commercial for the company.

In truth I was also concerned about the picture of PL Travers - the original author of the Mary Poppins books - that was being painted in interviews and pre-release publicity. There was a developing consensus that Travers was just a bitch that everyone hated, setting the audience up to root for corporation over the artist, the man over the woman. I am happy to report that my fears were misplaced, and the movie is better than the publicity junket that preceded it.

The early life of PL Travers in Australia with Colin Farrel as her father
"Saving Mr. Banks" is really two stories. One comprises the origin of the character Mary Poppins deep in the hinter land of Australia in the early part of the 20th century where Colin Farrell plays the happy drunk bank manager who also fathered the future the future PL Travers. The story of Mary Poppins is very much based on the childhood experiences of Mrs. Travers, and when she says the characters are family, this is neither metaphor nor hyperbole.

The second story is about the two weeks in 1961 when, after just nearly 20 years, Walt Disney finally convinces Travers to travel to Hollywood. Though Disney's goal was for Travers to sign away her creative rights to Mary Poppins for the sake of the movie, Travers was never quite convinced. Those two weeks were a struggle between an immensely talented Disney team, led by the man himself, and one prickly, curmudgeonly artist who is a match for all of them. 

Upon her arrival on the Disney lot, it quickly becomes obvious that everyone on the Disney team is convinced of their vision of Mary Poppins. Travers immediately dismissed both the idea of a musical and insists there would be no cartoon, much to the chagrin of the Sherman brothers, known fondly as The Boys, whose musical credits include "The Jungle Book" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." When she says she has completely gone off the color red and it was not to be used in the movie, Uncle Walt gives in unexpectedly. Travers' mantra of "No, no, no" nearly wears down everyone. The experience was so trying that Disney refused to invite Travers to the premiere for fear her negativity would affect the film. She showed up anyway. The movie manages to capture the humanity under all the vexatiousness.
Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, and PL Travers at the premiere of "Mary Poppins"

What the audience witnesses is the creative tension that forces the great Walt Disney to return to his roots as the artist who created Mickey Mouse and empathize with the artist in Travers who is so unwilling to relinquish her own creation. Together they create one of the most enduring films in the history of cinema which I am convinced was made better for all the tension between some amazingly creative individuals. It is no wonder that "Mary Poppins" was Disney's most successful live action movie, garnering five Oscars, including Best Actress for Julie Andrews and two for the Sherman brothers for Best Song and Original Score.

Though there is much that remains unsaid in "Saving Mr. Banks," both about Disney and Travers, the movie itself succeeds so long as we remember it is a story and not a documentary. It is packed with nostalgia and remind us of what Disney did best, and why we loved is so.


CrazyCris said…
Great post! I remember being a bit worried about this movie as well, based on how they were describing PLTravers, but I thought it was really well done and loved the story!
Plus I like the idea of the (almost) all-powerful Walt up against this cantankerous author! Probably had been a while since anyone had stood up to him. :p