A world without Walt Disney’s classic Mary Poppins seems unthinkable, but that was nearly the reality. Here to explain why, five decades after the musical was first shown to public, is a biographical picture that shows audiences the story behind its making, and two conflicting figures that helped birth it.
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is a celebrated author best known as the creator of Mary Poppins, a magical nanny who looks after the Banks family. Having not published a novel in years, Travers is facing bankruptcy and fears that she will lose her treasured London home. To rectify her situation, she has two options: write a new book, which she is reluctant to do, or give the rights of her novels to a film studio, which she is equally uninclined to do.
The person most keen to gain the rights to Travers’ characters is Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who wants to honour a decades-old promise he made to his daughters – to turn the Mary Poppins books into a movie. Wanting to ease her concern and gain her trust, Walt invites Mrs. Travers to Los Angeles for her to oversee the pre-production process with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriters, brothers Bob (B.J. Novak) and Dick Sherman (Jason Schwartzman)
Between her clashes with Disney and pleas to change direction, Travers recollects her childhood in rural Australia, which was a source of inspiration for her novels. As she reminisces, it is revealed that the fictitious Banks household – the very one that Mary Poppins takes care for – is modelled on her own family, including her eccentric father (Colin Farrell) as the patriarch of the household, and the congenial Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) as none other than Mary Poppins.
The best element of Saving Mr Banks is undoubtedly the dichotomic personalities of Travers and Disney. The motivations of both individuals are understandable and can be identified with – Travers does not want her characters, with whom she shares a close bond, to be trivialised in the same way that the works of J.M. Barrie and A.A. Milne were; meanwhile Walt, who insists on being referred to by his first name, wants his adaptation to be consumed and enjoyed by everybody.
The portrayal of Mr Walt Disney is another great aspect of Saving Mr Banks. Years ago, it was unthinkable that the corporation’s sacred cow would ever be star of a feature-length movie, let alone one made by his own studio. Despite that being the case, there’s never the sense that Disney has been censored or romanticised by his company, with the film seeing his tenacity as a flawed trait, rather than a positive one. What hasn’t been altered is the warmth and charm that Disney was known for, thanks to a magnificent performance from Tom Hanks.
When not focusing on the differing personalities of its leads, Saving Mr. Banks devotes plenty of the time to the artistic process that went into the making of Mary Poppins, and it’s quite fascinating to witness. Many a day is spent with the Shermans and DaGradi trying to convince Travers that her material is in safe hands, while the latter spends her time either rubbishing their creative choices, or arguing why their work fails to capture the essence of her characters.
Saving Mr. Banks is not a movie one can describe as ground-breaking. There’s a very familiar vibe to proceedings, and there’s rarely, if ever, a moment where the conventions of cinema are challenged – the closest the film comes to doing so is during a workshop for the song Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, which intercuts between the Sherman brothers’ singing and a peculiar oration by Travers’ father. With more melodic stylings like this, maybe the picture wouldn’t seem so safe and conformist.
Conventional though it may be, Saving Mr. Banks is a story not without its delights, offering an interesting glimpse into the creation of a much-cherished musical. Anchored by two well-written protagonists, and the conflict they endured, one cannot help but find themselves stirred by the film’s tale.