(2013) True Life Drama (Disney) Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Lily Bigham, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths, Ronan Vibert, Jerry Hauck, Laura Waddell, Fuschia Sumner, David Ross Patterson, Michelle Arthur. Directed by John Lee Hancock
There are few adults or children who aren’t at least aware of the Disney classic Mary Poppins and most of those bear at least some sort of love for the film. In the review of the film, I mentioned that there are no others that take me back to my childhood like that one and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. It is therefore somewhat unsettling to note that the movie nearly didn’t get made – and if author P.L. Travers who created the character had her way, it would have been a very different movie indeed.
Walt Disney (Hanks) had always been enchanted by the tale of the flying nanny and made a promise to his daughters that he would make a movie of it someday. However, getting it done was a whole other matter entirely. P.L. Travers (Thompson), the prickly author of the Mary Poppins books, was unwilling to part with her creation to Hollywood which she considered a vulgar and schmaltzy place. Her prim and proper Poppins would doubtlessly be turned into a mindless dolt or worse still, a cartoon. Travers, you see, hated cartoons.
Finally nearly broke, she at last reluctantly consented to travel to Hollywood to sign away the rights to Poppins and the Banks family which she thought of as her own family. However, she insisted on script approval and Disney in a nearly-unheard of move for him granted it. He gave the chilly Brit over to writer Don DaGradi (Whitford) and composers Richard (Schwartzman) and Robert (Novak) Sherman.
Things go rapidly downhill from there. Travers is uneasy with the idea of making Poppins a musical – “Mary Poppins doesn’t sing” she sniffs – and absolutely hates the idea of casting Dick van Dyke as ert the Chimney Sweep. She’s very uncomfortable with the Americanization of her characters and the songs – well, she hates those too.
In fact there’s very little American that she doesn’t hate from the architecture to the smell of Los Angeles which she describes to her Disney-supplied driver Ralph (Giamatti) as “sweat and exhaust” but what he describes as jasmine which pretty much sums up the difference between the characters. She hates the pastries and treats that the long-suffering production assistant Biddy (Bigham) supplies and she barges in on Disney which drives his assistant Tommie (Baker) batty.
And nothing they do makes her happy, not even a trip to Disneyland with Walt himself. Walt is at wit’s end, particularly when she announces that the color red has been banned from the film. “You’re trying to test me, aren’t you,” he murmurs quite perceptively. “You’re trying to see how far I’m willing to go.” She holds the unsigned rights over his head like a Sword of Damocles. It isn’t until she retreats back to England, furious that Walt is planning on animating the chalk drawing sequence, that he figures out what is motivating her and why she is so reluctant for the movie to proceed.
There are clues throughout, almost all of them in flashback sequences in which an 8-year-old Travers, nicknamed Ginty (Buckley) adores her banker dad (Farrell) in rural Australia in the early 20th century but watches alcohol and disappointment slowly wear him away. It is there we see the genesis of Mary Poppins and the reason that P.L. Travers is a far different woman than Helen “Ginty” Goff was meant to be.
It’s something of a miracle that this movie got made at all. Although the script was independently commissioned, what other studio other than Disney would buy it? And Disney had a tight rope to walk on the film; if Walt comes off as a saint, it smacks of self-aggrandizement but if he comes off flawed they might see their brand eroded. I think that in the end that Walt comes off here as a genuinely good man but one who was a sharp businessman and who could be equally as cold and calculating as he was warm and compassionate. Near the end of the film, Tommie asks him why Mrs. Travers was left off the invitation list for the premier of Poppins and Walt says in a somewhat cold voice that there would be interviews and press to be done and he had to protect the film. Travers had to literally ask for permission to come and she never forgave him for that, among other things.
In fact the movie seems to imply that a certain understanding and mutual affection existed between Disney and Travers and that simply wasn’t the case. She found him overbearing and thought him deceitful and refused to work with him ever again. In fact when Broadway musical producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her to do a stage version of Poppins, she outright refused but later relented with the stipulation that nobody who worked on the film be connected in any way with the musical. After Travers’ death in 1996, Mackintosh later approached Disney and got input from them.
Thompson’s name has come up in Oscar discussions and for good reason; this is one of the finest performances of a stellar career on her part. Travers is a disagreeable, cantankerous sort who insists that every script meeting be audio taped and finds reason after reason why things can’t be done. However when she allows people in, the vulnerable child emerges and we see her regrets and her pain. I certainly wouldn’t object to her getting nominated for Oscar gold and I wouldn’t be surprised either.
I read that some retired Disney sorts who actually worked on the film who saw Saving Mr. Banks were brought to tears because the details were so on-target. Certainly this was a labor of love and like most labors was a difficult and often painful one. Hancock actually plays one of the actual audio tapes of one of the initial script sessions over the end credits so you get a real idea of how the real Mrs. Travers was (the same session is recreated in the film) and if anything, they softened her image from reality somewhat.
Disney, like most men who accomplish the sort of success that he did in life, is either sanctified or demonized depending on the nature of the person making the opinion. The real Walt Disney lay somewhere in between the two extremes. I think that this is as close a glimpse as we’re likely to get at the real Walt and while I tend to think that this is a fictionalized account of the real events surrounding the making of Mary Poppins, it is nonetheless entertaining and engrossing and one of the year’s best films.
REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.
REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes may be a bit too intense for children. There are also some unpleasant images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanks, who plays Walt Disney, is in fact a distant cousin of the studio chief.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Blood Creek