Mary Poppins is a legendary figure in 20th century pop culture. From the eight books written by P. L. Travers to the 1964 Disney musical (and the 1984 Soviet version), to the 2004 stage version, to the 30 Mary Poppins’ who showed up at the 2012 London Olympics to vanquish the villains of British literature, there are probably very few people who are not at least familiar with the famous nanny. But while Travers’ books were famous decades beforehand, most people probably know Mary Poppins through the Disney film, which is one of the most famous and successful films of its time, garnering 13 Oscar nominations (and 5 wins), launching the film career of Julie Andrews, and filling our heads with memorable music. In fact, I would guess that these days far more people have seen the film than have read the books, and those who have read them most likely did so after seeing the movie. But what most people probably don’t know, and what Saving Mr. Banks sets out to tell, is the story of how the film was made, and the struggle of Walt Disney and P. L. Travers to find a way to understand each other.
It’s 1961 and Mrs. Travers (as she likes to be called) is having some financial difficulties. Her agent practically begs her to meet with Walt Disney, who has been trying for 20 years to convince her to let him adapt the Mary Poppins books into a film, and she reluctantly agrees, with the understanding that if she doesn’t like what he has to say then she can refuse to sign over the rights. So stiff, formal Mrs. Travers flies to sunny Los Angeles for two weeks for the meeting and to see what Disney and his team have put together. She’s familiar, of course, with both the man and the company that bear the name Disney, and while she is convinced that it will never work she’s starting to reach the end of her rope. Things go badly from the start, from her overly friendly limo driver to the hotel room crammed full of Disney characters and merchandise, including a giant Mickey on her bed and a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh (which gets a disparaging remark from Travers about A. A. Milne’s relationship with Disney). Things only get worse the next day as she heads to the Walt Disney Studios to meet the man himself and begin work on figuring out the film.
Upon her arrival she meets writer Don DaGradi, who commits the sin of referring to Mary Poppins by just her first name, and the songwriting Sherman Brothers, who Travers dismisses as she feels like the books are not suited for a musical. But her main adversary is Walt (as he likes to be called), whose familiar ways and bright and cheerful nature represent everything that Travers disdains. His larger than life personality rubs her the wrong way, while her stiff attitude is like a nut that he desperately wants to crack. After some reluctance she agrees to work with the team while reserving the right to walk away if she decides it won’t work. So, set up in a sunlit studio, she, Don and the Sherman Brothers set to work on the script. She insists that their sessions be recorded on tape to ensure that all of her corrections are heeded but also as a record, and she immediately begins to undo and deride all of their work thus far.
From big changes to small, almost everything is wrong to her. She objects to the music and to any animation whatsoever being in the movie. Dick Van Dyke must absolutely not be cast (she scoffs at the suggestion that he’s “one of the greats,” which is a phrase she reserves for Olivier, Burton and Guinness). She doesn’t want the color red to be in the film, she dislikes the design of the Banks’ house, and made up words are definitely out. But most important to her is the Banks family. She doesn’t want Mrs. Banks to be a suffragette (a suggestion from Walt to give the audience a reason why the house needs a nanny), and doesn’t like Mr. Banks’ mustache. As they work on the script, Walt is informed of all of her objections, and things become a back and forth between the two as they see how hard they can push their views without breaking everything.
As things progress, Walt, and we the audience, begin to learn a bit more about Mrs. Travers life, and how she came to be this way. He begins to question his ideas about her when she mocks him over his mistaken belief that Mary Poppins was sent to save the children, when in fact she was sent to save Mr. Banks. We see in flashbacks what Walt has to dig up through research and deduction: that Travers had a tragic life as a youth growing up in Australia. Travers father struggled with alcoholism, which slowly tore his family apart as it jeopardized his job and ruined his health, while her mother struggled to hold the family together that she was never equipped to handle. Her father was a happy, encouraging man who she adored, who was whimsical and sweet (and a lot like Walt in that way) but who was hiding the dark secret of his drinking. Eventually her Aunt came to stay with the family, clearly the inspiration for Mary Poppins, but some things just can’t be fixed.
Walt realizes that for Travers Mary Poppins was a way to cope with her past, and that changes his tactics as he comes to understand what the stories mean to her. We all know, of course, how the movie ends, as Mary Poppins, the film, was a huge success and largely the film that Disney intended. The joy in the film comes from watching as Walt’s team begins to fully comprehend the story they’re making and as their filmmaking magic starts to win Travers over, whether with a particularly inspired song or story moment or with a trip to Disneyland with Walt. But the core of the film is about how we deal with the realities of life. Saving Mr. Banks presents Travers and Walt as two extremes of coping with trauma; Walt’s attitude and work was as much a reaction to the dark side of his upbringing as Mary Poppins was for Travers. The film presents both viewpoints as valid, although it obviously makes a stronger case for the Disney attitude. The reality is that we all do whatever it is we can to get through our days, and we tend to object when others react differently.
The biggest strength of Saving Mr. Banks is its cast. Emma Thompson is “practically perfect in every way” as Travers, and she gives the author both a sense of strength and of vulnerability. She makes us feel what a struggle her life has been and how hard she has to work to be able to deal, while showing us the fragility in the worldview she has built for herself. Saving Mr. Banks may have initially been presented as a Walt Disney biopic, but Thompson is without a doubt the star. It’s Travers’ story we’re watching. Tom Hanks is equally excellent as Walt, with arguably the harder part to play. Portraying a well-known figure like Walt is always about walking a fine line between performance and impersonation, and Hanks walks it admirably. He looks enough like the Walt we knew to convince us, and even if his voice doesn’t sound exactly right his manner of speaking feels spot on. The rest of the cast is also spectacular, whether it’s Bradley Whitford as the constantly harassed Don DaGradi, Jason Schwartzman as sweetly eager Richard Sherman, B. J. Novak as the more combative Robert Sherman, or Colin Farrell as Travers tragic father. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Ralph, Travers limo driver, whose constant optimism is immensely frustrating to Travers until he starts to wear her down and she begins to understand him.
As directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the film strikes just the right tone, with a balance between humor and tragedy that echoes the film’s views on life. Focusing the film on this particular moment in both Walt and Travers’ lives gives it a tight narrative, keeping it from turning into one of those dreaded three hour biopics that cover every aspect of their lives. We get to see Travers at a turning point in her life while we see Walt at his prime, ready to produce the crown jewel of his career. Thomas Newman’s beautiful score weaves in all of the music we love from Mary Poppins, often using it in unexpected ways (“Chim Chim Cher-ee” becomes the film’s haunting theme song, in a way). The production does some clever things to connect us to the time period, including refilming one of Walt’s TV specials with Hanks in order to set the stage for the portrayal and using an actual recording from the script sessions with Travers in the closing credits.
The question on most people’s minds seems to be how much Saving Mr. Banks is just another Disney commercial, and it’s a fair question. The script was written and pre-production begun before the Disney company ever became involved with the film, and according to interviews with the film’s creators there was very little corporate interference. (The exception being that Walt is never shown smoking, though we do get an acknowledgement that he smoked when we see him stubbing out a cigarette in his office.) The film doesn’t gloss over the conflict between Travers and Walt, and it certainly doesn’t make Walt look like some kind of saint. (It even acknowledges that Walt intentionally did not invite Travers to the Hollywood premiere of the film.) Both Travers and Walt are portrayed as headstrong, determined artists strongly invested in the final product but with wildly different views. And the fact of the matter is that Travers did eventually sign over the rights to the film and Walt did make a masterpiece that was universally acclaimed, even if Travers wasn’t happy with the final product. The only thing we don’t get is an acknowledgement that Travers was so angry about the whole experience that she refused to ever work with Disney or Hollywood again, which later created big challenges for the stage adaptation, though that fact has little bearing on the story as it is told in the film.
To a Disney fan like myself, Saving Mr. Banks is more than the objectively fantastic film that it is. It has a personal resonance for those like me, and is in many ways a defense of Disney as a man, a company and an idea. It’s never heavy handed, nor does it suggest that the Disney way is the only way, but it makes a strong argument for the existence of the Disney style and frame of mind that is often criticized. And while there’s a whole analysis to be written about how the film handles this debate, the highlight of the film for me is the moment when Walt takes Travers to Disneyland. Seeing Hanks in character as Walt, standing at the main entrance, walking down Main Street U.S.A., or riding on the King Arthur Carrousel is an absolute joy, and if you squint a little it’s easy to see Walt there, enjoying his creation not out of ego but out of the joy it has brought to so many people. Travers may call it a “dollar-printing machine” in the film, and that may be true, but much like Mary Poppins is a way for her to cope with the realities of the world, Disney is a way for others to. Saving Mr. Banks is a story both of how we deal with those realities, but also the struggle we face when we try to share something so personal to us in a way that we think can help others. Some of us write books, some of us make films or theme parks, and some might even have blogs, but we do what we can both so that we can perhaps save a few Mr. Banks’ out there but also to try to save the Mr. Banks inside ourselves. That, after all, is what art is all about.