Every now and again, a movie comes along that has depth and heart and all the things that remind us of our humanity. “Saving Mr. Banks, “ released a few days before Christmas, tells the story behind the making of Disney’s beloved “Mary Poppins.” This seamlessly executed film embraces the myth behind the magic and capitalizes on the stellar talents of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in the two lead roles. Don’t miss this one, and stay through the rolling credits for a glimpse of the real history behind the film.
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had met his match in negotiations with the book’s author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), an erasable, straight-laced woman who had refused Disney’s best efforts to secure the rights to turn the children’s book into a movie. So far in his career, Disney’s best efforts had resulted in one success after another. From the world’s most popular mouse to the California theme park, everything Mr. Disney touched turned to gold.
Now after more than 20 years of negotiations with Travers, Disney is no closer in realizing his dream to secure the rights to make the film. His desire to move Poppins from the page to the big screen derived from a heart-felt promise he’d made his daughters when they were little. Disney begins to take this fiasco personally.
With urging from her lawyer, Travers finally decides to leave her flat in London for a few weeks to visit Disney in Hollywood. Given the dire straights of her finances, the timing is right for an “exploratory” investigation to see what Disney has in mind.
From the beginning, Travers is a miserable guest. She hates the idea that characters would suddenly break into song, in spite of the talents of songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). She absolutely refuses any changes in the book’s details, no matter how trivial they may be. Screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) is doomed before script reading even begins. She hates Dick Van Dyke. She refuses any discussion of animation. In essence, she continues to hold the contract hostage, refusing to sign. Her Mary Poppins must be protected from Disney’s puffery and glam.
Disney and his team are masters of negotiation, but those business skills aren’t enough. Disney has to figure out exactly why Travers so steadfastly refuses to bring Mary Poppins to the masses, in spite of his best efforts to please her.
The key lies in Travers’s own childhood and her relationship with her beloved father (Colin Farrell). Unfolding in flashbacks throughout the film, the multiple-layered details refuse to provide a simplistic explanation. Instead, Disney and Travers ultimately find a shared space, one that neither expects to find.
Finally, the children’s classic will be reborn on the big screen, and Mary Poppins, the world’s most perfect nanny, will take her place in America’s mythology of childhood. “Saving Mr. Banks” enriches that story.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.
Marilyn Robitaille has been writing film reviews for the Empire-Tribune since 1999.