P.L. Travers authored eight novels featuring the character of Mary Poppins, and if the information I’ve gathered is correct, she wrote not with the intent of entertaining children but as a way to come to terms with the more traumatic aspects of her childhood, including her father’s alcoholism and premature death, her mother’s suicide attempt, and her family’s destitution in Queensland, Australia. Given how personal these stories were to her, it’s no wonder that she spent nearly twenty years resisting Walt Disney’s attempts to acquire the movie rights to them. She would finally grant him those rights in 1961, although it would take allowing her to serve as creative consultant on the screenplay and two weeks of pre-production meetings on the Disney Studio lot in order to convince her.
Despite Travers’ involvement – or, more accurately, her merciless scrutinizing – she wasn’t at all satisfied with 1964’s Oscar-winning “Mary Poppins.” She didn’t appreciate the way certain characters and events were changed, she didn’t approve of the songs by Richard and Robert Sherman, and she was especially upset by the animated sequence, in which Dick Van Dyke danced with a chorus line of penguins. She so strongly disapproved of the film, and of her perceived harsh treatment by Walt Disney, that she ruled out granting rights to her other novels. The only way the 2004 stage musical of “Mary Poppins” got off the ground was through Travers’ insistence that it be in the hands of an English writing team as opposed to an American one, especially if the latter had any involvement whatsoever with the film. She was, in fact, so insistent about it that it was stipulated in her will.
“Saving Mr. Banks,” like all good biographical films, takes dramatic license with certain historical facts yet doesn’t lose sight of the big picture and retains the essence of the people involved. Inaccuracies notwithstanding, this is a wonderful movie, in great part because it isn’t a clinical backstage drama about the making of a movie; it is, first and foremost, a compelling examination of the ways in which people learn to relate to one another, whether or not they think they can. We follow a now financially-strapped, London-based Travers (Emma Thompson) as she reluctantly agrees to fly to Los Angeles and hear Walt Disney yet again plead his case for acquiring the rights to the original “Mary Poppins” novel. Travers is the very epitome of British stuffiness – always with the disapproving remarks about bad manners and proper speaking, always condescending to everyone around her, insisting she be addressed only as Mrs. Travers, having absolutely no tolerance for vulgarities or false sentiment or meaningless flights of fancy.
She holds onto Disney’s contract yet refuses to immediately sign it, for she must be convinced that the creative team hired to turn her book into a movie are actually capable of such a task. She demands that every meeting by recorded on audio tape, just to make sure no one goes back on their word. She’s always harshly criticizing screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters the Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) for their perceived acts of narrative manhandling, and she’s especially wary of Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks), who she believes doesn’t know the true meaning of “Mary Poppins” and merely want to turn it into another silly, innocuous cartoon for financial gain. Disney, who annoys Travers by addressing everyone, including herself, by their first name, relies on both his innate charm and shrewd business savvy to convince Travers to come on board, and is willing to stay the course even as her demands get increasingly outlandish.
But Travers isn’t being difficult merely for the thrill of it. Intercut with her two-week Los Angeles visit in 1961 are scenes from her Australian childhood in 1906, during which we see how events influenced her writing and why she’s so hesitant to let just anyone adapt “Mary Poppins.” As a little girl, originally named Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley), she was encouraged to daydream by her father (Colin Farrell), whose lovingness and playful spirit masked desperate insecurities. It eventually became to clear, even to little Helen, that his fantasizing wasn’t merely a distraction but an inability to cope with reality, and she would watch as he descended into alcoholism and illness, effectively destroying his marriage, his job as a bank manager, and his health. The arrival of her aunt (Rachel Griffiths), a stern, Poppins-esque medical nurse, squelched whatever remained of her willingness in indulge in childish games of make-believe.
What Travers doesn’t initially see is that Disney understands her better than she thinks he does. As the creator of Mickey Mouse, he too has been driven to overprotectiveness, and although their childhoods weren’t the same, he remembers with reluctance the harsh Missouri winters his father forced him to deliver papers in, and the buckle end of his father’s belt when he didn’t live up to his expectations. Learning this doesn’t soften Travers’ position on the “Mary Poppins” film. In fact, the only American she truly befriends is her personal limo driver (Paul Giamatti), who has his reasons for being so cheerful about the sun. However, she comes to see that Disney is more than a media mogul with money on his mind. This is likely a romanticized vision of the real relationship between Travers and Disney, but keep in mind that “Saving Mr. Banks” is a movie, not a documentary. I believe the film is true to the essence of who these people were, and that the filmmakers do a splendid job of humanizing them.