Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 5 min.
Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
and remembering, I keep a grip on hope.
Lamentations 3:19-21 The Message
If you are like me, one who enjoys movies about movies (from the fictional Singing in the Rain to RKO 281:The Battle Over the Making of Citizen Kane), you will like the new one giving us a peek into the making of Mary Poppins. It could be said that those behind this Disney-produced movie, director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, used more than just “a spoonful of sugar” in portraying the tumultuous relationship between novelist P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and studio head Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Disney would have loved this film (that omits all of his dark history, such as his strike-breaking tactics and his informing on actors and writers tarred with even the slightest suspicion of being Communists). I believe too that P.L. Travers would have hated it, much as she hated the film inspired by her children’s novel. (More on this later.) I am sure it is no coincidence that Saving Mr. Banks was released just in time to help promote the 50th anniversary of the release of Mary Poppins.
Our film, begins with the shot of a little girl in 1906 in Australia with the barely heard words of the song that also starts off Mary Poppins, “Winds in the East, mist coming in, like something is brewing, about to begin.” The movie frequently jumps back and forth between that distant time and place and the two weeks in 1961 when L. P. Travers is forced by dire financial need to finally leave her civilized London home and venture into what she regarded as the jungle of the Walt Disney Studio.
For almost 20 years the movie magnate had tried to keep his promise to a daughter that he would bring her favorite novel to the screen, but each time had been rebuffed. Travers hated the Disney animated films, and feared that he would ruin her beloved Mary Poppins by over sentimentalizing her and the story. By her tart remarks aboard the America-bound airliner and, upon emerging from LAX, her putdowns of the quality of the city’s air, we see that she is pretty soured on about everything. Soon Walt, who asks her to address him by his first name, and his staff discover just how prickly and petty (in their eyes) she can be. The contract that she carries about on her person gives her final script approval, and she has thus far refused to sign it, so the success of the film project constantly hangs in the balance.
Her demands and insulting objections to the work of scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the song-writing team of Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) are unremitting. She is opposed to the story being made into a musical filled with “silly songs.” She does not like Dick Van Dyke, preferring instead a serious actor such as Lawrence Olivier or Richard Burton. There is to be no romance between the chimney sweep and Mary Poppins. The house sketched by the art department is too grand. The address number is not quite the same as in the book. Mr. Banks should not have a mustache. She even stipulates, to everyone’s utter amazement that the color red is not to be used in the film. (She sweeps aside the objections that London’s phone booths and busses are red.) There is to be NO ANIMATION! She also insists on addressing Walt as Mr. Disney and that she not be called by her first name (Pamela or Pam), but Mrs. Travers. Clearly, it will be a time of hell for all concerned.
It is only as we see more of those bygone days in Australia that we begin to understand her defensiveness concerning how her book is adapted, as well as comprehending the meaning of the title of the film. Her father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell) is an imaginative man longing for adventure beyond his boring job managing a bank. He seeks escape in the bottle and in playing with his daughter whom he calls Ginty (played as a child by Annie Rose Buckley)—indeed, we get the impression that he prefers her company to that of his wife Margaret (Ruth Wilson), who is clearly disappointed at leaving their comfortable city home for a rundown house that is literally at the end of the railroad line in the Outback. Because of his incessant drinking they quarrel at night.
With each short episode from the past we discover Ginty’s hero worship of her father change into disillusionment and despair as she witnesses more of his failings while drunk. The turning point comes when he is to present a series of awards from the bank at the local fair. Under the influence of alcohol, he turns what should be a grand into an embarrassing incident that ends with his falling off the platform and breaking his foot—and of course, being fired a second and final time.
Ginty is also deeply hurt when she brings to his bedside the poem she wrote about him for which she had won a prize, and he discounts it. As the family’s fortune plunges with his increasingly bad health, her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) arrives to help her suicidal mother care for the children. It is fortunate that Aunt Ellie is there to bring the stability needed by the young girls, especially following Goff’s death. The aunt’s parrot-headed umbrella, over-sized carpetbag, and no nonsense attitude leave no doubt as to the inspiration for the stern nanny Marry Poppins.
Especially poignant, and informing, is the scene in the Disney Studio Rehearsal Room where the song-writing brothers perform “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” for Travers. She, thinking back to her drunken father’s falling off the speaker’s platform at the fair, cries out to them, “Why did you have to make him so cruel?” In the film script the father Mr. Banks, neglectful of his family because of his over-involvement with his banking career, refuses to mend his children’s broken kite.
Thus the Sherman brothers come up with the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” to be placed near the end of the film to show Mr. Bank’s re-engagement with his children as he repairs their broken kite. The scene in which the brothers play the song for Travers is an emotional highlight of the film. We see the catchy song working its way into Travers’ heart as she hums along. A close up shows her tapping her foot in time. The brothers start dancing as they sing. The secretary rushes out to bring Walt back to witness this miracle, and soon Travers is dancing with the others. This is that rare moment in the film where she is in agreement with the would-be filmmakers, experiencing a rare moment of joy—though when the music stops she still points out a grammatical error in the lyrics. I know that some critics consider this scene too much of a dose of Disneyfication, but I was moved by it.
By now it is apparent to the viewer what Disney voices in a later sequence when he makes a last ditch effort to convince the author to sign over the rights. Travers is in bondage to the past, still anguished some 50 years later over her love for and disillusionment in her father, as well as her guilt over not being able to save him from his drinking. Disney now sees that Mary Poppins arose out of tragedy. This could explain her abandoning her given name of Helen Goff and taking her father’s Christian name as part of her nome de plume (as an actress as well as a writer—we are not informed in the movie that she had a stage career before she penned her books).
After she has walked out upon discovering that the penguins in the film were not to be trained birds but drawn by Disney animators, Walt catches up with her and we have another dramatic, heart-felt encounter in which he plays psychologist to bring about some healing—and, of course, gain her signature on the contract. (I would love to learn if the extreme circumstances depicted were true or the result of dramatic license.) The tragic past of her father has cast her into the frame of heart and mind expressed by Jeremiah in Lamentations, but he at least had his faith in God that sustained his hope. Not until her encounter with Disney does she become free of the grief and guilt, and arrive at hope. Or at least so the movie would lead us to believe.
Although P.L. Travers might not be the most admirable human being, we have to admit that her suspicions regarding the Disney treatment of her characters were justified. She was but one of hundreds of intellectuals who decried (and still do) the Disneyfication—they even made up the word—of a work, meaning that it was overly sentimentalized and made “cute.” And to an extent, as hinted at earlier in my “spoonful of sugar” remark, the relationship between her and Walt is Disneyfied in this picture. We see her teary eyed at the premier at Graumann’s Chinese Theater (which she crashed, not having been invited to it!), but I suspect that in reality they were not tears of happiness. Not shown is her approach to Disney right afterward with her list of changes that she wanted to make in the final cut. It is reported that Disney replied that she had final say over the script, but not over the editing of the film, and then turned away without any further discussion. Back in London she was still so hurt and angry that she refused to let the studio make any films of her other Mary Poppins books. Decades later when a stage adaptation was being discussed, she insisted that only English actors be used, and that no one with connections to the Disney Studio be allowed to have anything to do with the production, something that she even put in her will.
Before closing I do want to mention one other fine actor whose role was made up so as to bring out a little more of Travers’ humanity. Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, the limousine driver employed by the studio to pick Travers up at the airport and squire her from hotel to studio and back. She dismisses him at first, but Ralph is the cheery sort who eventually brings her to like at least one American.
The film as history no doubt leans in favor of placing Walt Disney in a more favorable light. Tom Hanks not only effectively plays him as a genial man, but the audience’s warm regard for the actor also adds to this. Whether good history or not, “there is an element of fun’ in the film that cannot be denied. Fun not only in some of the dialogue and incidents but also in Thomas Newman’s score that uses numerous Sherman Brothers’ tunes from their original Mary Poppins score. Emma Thompson has her best role in years as Pamela Lyndon Travers. We are given a chance to hear how accurately she imitates her speech: during the end credits we hear a portion of one of 39 tapes the author insisted on being recorded at all of their script conferences. Earlier we had seen that portion acted out. The film is not suitable for children because of the complexity of the tragic past, but it will appeal to the child in the adult viewer—something that Walt himself says to Travers when he coaxes—no, orders—her onto a carousel at Disneyland Park.
The full review with a set of 10 questions for reflection or discussion is in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables. If you are not a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, go to The Store to buy either the single issue or for a year’s subscription.