It’s 1961 and after twenty years of annual requests to an author asking to let him adapt her most famous and beloved book into a movie a studio mogul has finally begun to wear her down. Still not being thrilled with the idea, but now needing money, the author is finally willing to listen to his proposal.
A ten-day visit to California, a fun tour of his studio and accompanying theme park and being granted complete creative control with all the decisions involving making this movie should do the trick to melt away this icy authors skepticism down and make her ‘ok’ all the ideas the writers and songwriters have for her character.
However, they will soon realize that no matter what enticements are thrown in her face, this author will not bend with how she views her work and will not allow anyone – even the most famous filmmaker in history – to sully this character and story that holds a special place in her heart. And so begins the collaboration between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers in bringing her creation Mary Poppins to movie screens all over the world.
I like so many other movie fans like Mary Poppins and I had heard of the stories of Travers being so reluctant at letting Disney get his hands on it.
So I thought a film telling this story could be an interesting exploration of an artist trying to protect her creation, the over-the-top, two-faced schmoozing that Hollywood does, the agreements and concessions each party had to make and the overall process behind making this classic film that everyone loved – except Travers. This is not that movie.
As the trailers for the movie show Travers (Emma Thompson) is flown to Disney studios where Uncle Walt (Tom Hanks) tries to placate her every wish. He is fixated on filming Mary Poppins since promising his daughters those twenty years earlier he would make the movie for them.
He’s willing to give Travers an unheard of amount of power with this collaboration. She’s allowed to put the kibosh on anything she doesn’t like about Disney’s idea of a Mary Poppins movie. To everyones surprise she systematically shoots down every idea, creative decision and song that Disney’s team presents her.
Intercut with her 1961 visit at Disney are flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia which reveals why this nanny character means so much to her and details her own relationship with her father who was the inspiration for Mr. Banks – the equally important character in the Mary Poppins story.
It isn’t until Disney discovers Travers personal history that he understands the deeper meaning behind why she holds these characters so dear. Making a last heartfelt desperate plea she ultimately trusts him that he will treat her work with care and signs the rights over to Walt.
This is not surprisingly a very whitewashed telling of the story that leaves out much of the drama, tension and bad blood that was left in the fallout of this partnership.
I say it shouldn’t be surprising because Disney Pictures made it, so why would they want to present their main man as anything but a magical honest, good-natured, nobleman who was able to accomplish the impossible and had the best intentions for everyone involved. We’ll have to end the story there.
Oh Disney Pictures couldn’t possibly let the film fade out on anything but a happy ending, even if it is manufactured and they had to rewrite history to do it.
It’s not just a sugar-coated film, but a saccharine-covered one. Director John Lee Hancock creates a very safe movie that tries to press all the emotional buttons with heart tugging music, some humor and moments of revelation that are meant to wipe away the turmoil with ease, until literally our main character is entranced by the wonderful world of Disney.
The journey we’re taken on in the film learning about Travers background and Disney’s gradual understanding of why she felt so passionate and protective of her work is pretty much fictionalized when weighed against the reality of the true story, since she didn’t actually like what he did with Mary Poppins in the end anyway. I guess he didn’t understand it or Travers. So I don’t really understand what story the filmmakers want to tell here. I suppose just the Disney-fied version of events.
I understand some creative liberties have to be taken in adapting a ‘true story’. Various real people will be combined into one sole character, timelines will change for dramatic purposes, scenes will simply be designed to move the story along. I didn’t start watching this and expect a documentary, but the artistic liberties taken in Saving Mr. Banks felt like it weakened and dulled this story.
The changes didn’t make a more engaging story or more interesting characters. Come on, Disney might have been a nice guy, but he couldn’t have been the immaculate prince they present here. Travers might have been an inflexible pain, but perhaps she had very good reasons to be apprehensive of Disney’s requests.
It would have been refreshing had they made this more of an equal duel between these two characters and simply not just Disney with a twinkle in his eye helping Travers get over her Daddy issues and Travers relieved at the final film. Whew!
The film is structured in a way to make us learn more about Travers’ childhood via flashbacks. As she shoots down every ‘Mary Poppins’ idea we all know and love and she comes off as a stuffy old maid, she reminisces about her family and father (played by Colin Farrell). Travers’ father is the ‘Rosebud’ in her past. He’s a likable tragic figure who died when she was seven and was the inspiration for Mr. Banks who is the real person Mary Poppins comes to save.
The flashbacks flesh out our understanding of why Travers is so protective of Mary Poppins, but they started to feel repetitive and disruptive at times. I was surprised how much of the film consists of them. I would guess around 40%. Plus, many of them don’t feel very natural in their placement in the movie. They suddenly just appear most of the time and felt jarring.
The best and most emotional one I felt was Travers remembering her father drunk giving a speech as the Sherman’s play the famous bank song and the music begins to weave itself into her memory of her father. But a lot of the flashbacks felt unnecessary and could have been streamlined a bit more.
There are some good things in here, notably Thompson who is very fun to watch as she ultra-seriously criticizes and sniffs at every uplifting little thing Disney and his guys show her and the disdain she has for California. The supporting cast are all very good and Hanks is…well Tom Hanks. He’s likable, but this isn’t a very impressive performance or character he’s given to play. This is really Thompson’s show and she’s the main attraction and the best thing in here.
Even viewing Saving Mr. Banks as not so much a ‘making of Mary Poppins movie’, but rather an exploration of Travers past and influences it still doesn’t leave much of an impression. Especially when I consider the movie isn’t very accurate to the events and strategically leaves out much about her, including the way she ultimately felt with the final Disney Mary Poppins product. There’s a reason why we never got a Mary Poppins 2. We don’t even get an epilogue about that. So it’s a rather selective look at her.
I can’t help but think how the real ending of this would have left a much more indelible impact had they stuck with it. After all the bickering, arguing and compromises that preceded that movie premiere Travers devastated breaks down in tears watching the film, afterwards she goes up to Disney and simply tells him, “you still don’t understand”.
We might not have understood what she means, but it certainly would have been more interesting and keeping closer to how Travers felt about her whole Disney experience, rather than this movie version of her feeling much better after a magical session of therapy from Walt.
I find it ironic that a film telling the story of the making of a movie where the creator is fighting to stay true to her original material and doesn’t want to see it become sanitized in the big Hollywood machine, is actually what this story has become here. I envision Uncle Walt loving this movie and Travers again sitting at the premiere with tears streaming down her face at this – and not happy tears.
It’s too bad Walt Disney Pictures had to tell this story and they didn’t let someone else film it who would have brought more of an impartial perspective to the whole thing.