The new Disney film "Saving Mr. Banks," which opened in the Chicago area on Friday, Dec. 13, is a magical little film about childhood, adulthood, and storytelling. It concerns itself with the making of the 1964 film "Mary Poppins" at Disney Studios in Burbank, as well as with the childhood years of P. L. Travers, the author of the original children's book. Scenes of the filmmakers hashing out scenes for the movie around an upright piano are interspersed with flashbacks to Travers as a young girl living with her family in Australia.
The head of the studio, Walt Disney, is a major character in "Saving Mr. Banks." (Though raised in Missouri, Disney was actually born in Chicago, at 2156 N. Tripp Ave. Efforts are underway to restore his home and turn it into a museum.) We meet the young "Mary Poppins" songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman, who wrote such classics as "Step in Time," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Let's Go Fly a Kite." (Richard is actually the musical director of "Saving Mr. Banks.")
And then, of course, there is P. L. Travers, a not unattractive English woman who wrote the original "Mary Poppins" in 1934, and the woman that Walt Disney had been after since the early 1940s for the rights to her book. (The original book was followed by many other related titles, such as "Mary Poppins in the Park," all of them loved by children in the movie.) Travers doesn't really want Disney to get his hands on her Mary Poppins. Travers is businesslike and no-nonsense; in a way, she's the antithesis of everything Disney.
Eventually, of course, she signs away the rights to her work. And the rest is movie-magic history.
For me, there was definitely something magic about "Mary Poppins." I saw it on the big screen when it first came out in 1964, when I was five years old. I remember loving the movie completely. In a way, I don't think I've ever felt so strongly about any other film. Ever.
The crowd at "Saving Mr. Banks" looked as if it was largely people in their 50s and early 60s: people like me, who had been children when "Mary Poppins" first appeared, gliding down from the sky so gracefully with her open umbrella and her fat, cloth satchel. I'm guessing that "Poppins" had been loved by all of them.
And like the fairy dust of Tinkerbell, the magic of "Mary Poppins" seems to have been sprinkled somewhat on "Saving Mr. Banks." It's far from a perfect film ... or even a great one. There are times when it just seems too Disney-fied for a film about adults.
But yet ... there is wonderful storytelling here, first-rate acting, and, yes, touches of whimsy and magic.
I spoke with three people in the lobby following the show. All were at least middle-aged, and two of the three liked the movie, while one was disappointed.
"It was great," said a woman named Kathy. "It was interesting to learn the background of the 'Mary Poppins' film.... They were quite a pair, Walt and Mrs. Travers."
A gentleman named Mike, who is 63, agreed, saying, "I thought it was a good film."
However, Mike's movie-going partner, Connie, 55, disagreed, saying, "I thought it was going to be better. I just thought it was going to be different. I thought it was going to be funnier."
All three agreed, however, that they now want to go back and see "Mary Poppins" again.