For nearly 50 years, “Mary Poppins” has captivated audiences of all ages with its delightful story of a magical nanny that appears at just the right time to help a family in need. I think it’s easily said that it’s a masterpiece containing marvelous performances and a brilliant soundtrack of songs that still endure to this day in the minds of everyone who’s seen the film. Looking at the film, you probably wouldn’t think that it was any more difficult to make than Disney’s other projects, but in this case, throw a temperamental author into the mix and things become much, much more difficult.
“Saving Mr. Banks” tells us the fascinating story of how the film adaptation of “Mary Poppins” came to be. For 20 years since the publication of the first few books, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had tried to get the rights from author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to make the film, but she had always stubbornly refused. In 1961, the royalties have started to dry up from her books, making her start to consider the offer more seriously. Her agent assures her that she would have the final word on the project, and so she decides to accept Walt’s invitation to come to Los Angeles and look over what they’ve done with her beloved characters.
Mrs. Travers is less than impressed with what she finds. Not only does she find a flaw in just about every design they’ve come up with, she also discovers to her dismay that they want to make the film a musical. As these preproduction difficulties continue, we are also shown her past in flashbacks, where we slowly come to realize where much of her inspiration came from and why these characters are so precious to her. As her stipulations continue to pile up (No animation, no Dick Van Dyke, no red, etc.), Walt and his crew begin to wonder if the project will ever get made, a prospect particularly important to Walt given the promise he made his daughters all those years ago.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a positively charming film filled with heart and a few good laughs along the way. We all know how this venture eventually turned out, but it’s fascinating to see just how difficult it was to get there. You can’t help but chuckle at first at some of the conditions that Travers comes up with (how do you take the color red out of a film like “Mary Poppins?”), but through the flashbacks with her father (Colin Farrell), it becomes clear that her relationship with him was very important to her, becoming one of the major inspirations for her novels.
Travers’ sessions of input are particularly fascinating here. When she comes to Los Angeles, most of the designs had been drawn up, actors considered, and even a full script written, but given that she has final say on everything, it all has to be approved. This turns something as simple as a script read-through into a nightmare as Travers has something to say about everything, including the very first scene heading. Even something as small as Mr. Banks having a mustache, a personal request from Walt, sets her off. Then there’s the fact that the team turns the mother into a suffragette, instead of being just a mother, which launchers her into a tirade of just how difficult being a mother can be.
The creative process behind the songs is equally wonderful. We hear snippets of the famous songs throughout the film, but sometimes they’re not quite right at first. However it’s not long before they take shape into the forms we know and love. It’s doubtful “A Spoonful of Sugar” was thrown together this quickly, but it’s still amazing to see it come together. Of course, Travers has a few problems with these songs as well, including the use of made-up words. You can only imagine her reaction when she hears “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
One of the most endearing things about the film are the performances from Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, who are both worthy of Oscar nominations come January. Thompson perfectly encapsulates the stubbornness, but also the longing and desire to see everything done just the way she wants it. Hanks portrays a model of patience as he deals with Travers’ long list of changes, but he also plays Walt with a good deal of genuine heart, especially as he tries to explain his wish to do justice to her work. The film would not work half as well without these amazing performances, which only serve to make this great film even more magical.
If there’s one complaint to be had about the film, it’s that the flashbacks could have been integrated a little better in the first part of the story. As we’re trying to settle into the main plot of the film, they feel more like interruptions at first, but as they progress, they begin to show their true purpose. When the flashbacks do finally come to life, they shine just as brightly as the rest of the film, thanks in no small part to Farrell’s touching portrayal of Travers’ father, a man who struggled with alcoholism while trying to bring happiness to his family.
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith have crafted a delightful film that just goes to show that making movie magic is not always as easy as it seems, even when all the pieces appear to be in place. Travers knew exactly what she wanted out of an adaptation of her cherished work, a lot of which dealt with the physical elements of the film, but more importantly it needed the spirit and the heart she had poured into her novels. “Mary Poppins” may have outstanding songs and performances, but it also contains these more vital ingredients in abundance, which is just another reason that it will continue to endure for another 50 years and beyond. 3.5/4 stars.
Starts today in limited release. Expands on December 20th.
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