Mary Poppins was the first movie I ever saw. The moment warranted dressing up to go downtown (in Pittsburgh) to see it at a swanky theatre with my parents and my then very little sister. I mostly remember sitting in the balcony wide-eyed as the story played out in Technicolor, listening to the catchy songs, watching the cute animation, and being utterly enthralled by Julie Andrews as the magical nanny and Dick Van Dyke as the rascally chimney sweep.
Saving Mr. Banks provides the back story to the making of the film. It turns out that P.L. Travers, the author of the novels on which the film was based, was a starchy, rather pinched and disapproving woman, with whom Walt Disney wrangled for more than two decades to get the film made. When her bank account requires that she finally accept his offer to buy the rights to adapt her book into his film, she reluctantly travels from her home in London to his empire in Los Angeles, where she wreaks havoc among the screenwriter, lyricist, and composer who are all earnestly busy creating the film we’ll come to love.
Obviously, we know how the story ends, but director John Lee Hancock (Snow White and the Huntsman) takes us the long way to get there, and manages to drum up a bit of suspense and a lot of pleasure in the journey. Mrs. Travers (as she insists on being called, even though she’s never been married and the name, it turns out, isn’t really her own) grew up in the Australian outback, where her father moved her family because he couldn’t keep a job. The loving and imaginative man inspired her in all sorts of flights of fancy and creativity. She adored him, but was chastened by his alcoholism, which encouraged him toward public displays that humiliated her overburdened, despairing mother and meant that his jobs were never secure. The emotional intensity of her father’s attention combined with the young girl’s powerlessness to affect her family’s deteriorating circumstances mark her for life.
As an adult, Mrs. Travers is imperious and insufferable, with overly high expectations of everyone, including herself. She’s also determined that Walt Disney won’t cheapen her Mary Poppins with what she finds his distastefully whimsical, puerile style. She doesn’t want the film to be a musical; she hates animation; and she rejects how the team has drawn her beloved characters. Walt himself, played with a little mustache and a big heart by Tom Hanks, is pressed into service to persuade her, and Saving Mr. Banks turns on their growing relationship and understandings.
The script (co-written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) relies heavily on explanatory and literal flashbacks to Mrs. Travers’ childhood in Australia. But those scenes are saved by lovely performances, especially by Annie Rose Buckley as the young Helen Goff (then called “Ginty,”), who becomes our heroine. The sensitive girl sees everything happening around her and can do little to change anything. The flashbacks are also graced by Colin Farrell as her father, who drinks because he hates the constraints of his job, even as he knows he has to provide for his family; by Ruth Wilson as his wife, a timid, terrified young woman whom young Ginty saves from her own Ophelia moment; and by Rachel Griffiths as the aunt who arrives at the 11th hour to save the family from certain ruin and becomes the template for Mrs. Travers’ magical nanny.
The Disney-set scenes are terrific, full of chagrined responses to Mrs. Travers’ chastising corrections to the creative team’s choices, and generous, polite responses to a woman who refuses to call anyone by their first name, even in the resolutely informal atmosphere of Walt’s Disney Corporation. Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak are wry and game as the creative team, who hopefully chirp the lyrics and melodies they’re writing to a disapproving Mrs. Travers, sweating out her inevitably negative response. The women secretaries speak in early Valley Girl, except for Kathy Baker as Tommie, Walt’s executive assistant, whose more mature responses to Mrs. Travers’ visits always seem to bode something interesting, but must have been left on the cutting room floor.
The movie, though, belongs to Emma Thompson as Mrs. Travers. She creates a nuanced, complicated character from one who could be two-dimensional and tiresome. In Thompson’s rendition, Mrs. Travers keeps her standards high to ensure that no one can meet them—she can’t be disappointed again as she was as a girl. People don’t like her and she knows it, but she doesn’t care. She’s a starchy, vital, piercingly smart woman in 1961, when women were supposed to be pliable and sweet. Thompson gives her levels and depth, so that her eventual capitulation makes emotional, as well as financial, sense. When, at the end, she watches the completed film at the premiere, Thompson’s cathartic response is moving to witness, without compromising the exacting nature of Mrs. Travers’ inclinations.
Thompson’s lovely performance is well met by Hanks’ as Walt Disney. It’s lovely to see a film in which a man and a woman develop a relationship that isn’t romantic, but that’s based instead on commerce, creativity, and eventually, mutual respect. The film could mock the Disney machine much as Mrs. Travers does—but, of course, as many commentators have noted, it’s an inside job. Since Saving Mr. Banks was produced by Disney, the film is invested in hagiography and preserving his revered status as the benign patriarch of “imagineering.”
Nonetheless, since he’s played as folksy and earnest by the lovable Hanks, the film makes it easy to admire Walt’s passion and commitment, and his real enjoyment in the pleasure his theme parks and films inspire. That unmediated delight is part of what Mrs. Travers comes to appreciate in him. Hanks’s final monologue, in which Walt travels to London with a real understanding of Mrs. Travers’s psychology, is a tour de force of empathy and persuasion, as he convinces her to give her father’s memory up to the power of imagination. Walt and Mrs. Travers are artists, whose stories transform their worlds. That they finally meet on an equal plane gives the film its arc.
Stay through the credits to hear the real P.L. Travers on tape, since she insisted that all her sessions with Mary Poppins’ creative team be recorded. You’ll hear how much of her Thompson seems to capture, and marvel at how entitled Mrs. Travers felt to shape the adaptation of her creation at an historical moment when women just weren’t given that much heed. And enjoy the sentimental journey of watching a beloved Disney film fall into place, lyric by lyric, melody by melody, animation cell by cell, guided by a determined woman and her finally respectful, talented collaborators.
The Feminist Spectator