Saving Mr. Banks is the true story of the making of the classic Disney film Mary Poppins. One of the best-loved children’s films of all time had a tumultuous ‘birth.’ The author of the series of novels the film was based on, Pamela ‘P.L.’ Travers, was totally against the cinematic project, antagonistic and uncooperative. But Walt Disney was determined to bring the story to the silver screen as a ‘present’ to his daughters. Since a good film should have a major conflict, Saving Mr. Banks was a perfect candidate.
The film is actually two stories intertwined: the making of Mary Poppins and the story of Travers’ quite unhappy life, which was her inspiration for the Mary Poppins fantasy series.
During the winter of 1933 in a thatched cottage in Sussex, England, a complicated woman named Pamela ‘P.L.’ Travers began to write Mary Poppins, eventually to inspire the beloved 1964 Walt Disney movie and supply generations of children with a magical fantasy nanny.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks follows Travers (Emma Thompson) as she travels to the Disney lot in Burbank for two weeks in 1961, tangling with and tormenting the studio chief (Tom Hanks). The L.A. visit inspires Travers to recall her childhood in Australia, in particular her father, a charismatic drunk played by Colin Farrell.
Some critics have complained that Saving Mr. Banks, which Disney itself produced and distributed, is too hard on Travers and too easy on the company’s founder. Travers is cold, critical and strange — arbitrarily objecting, for instance, to having the color red in the movie and dismissing Disney’s “silly cartoons.” ‘Uncle Walt,’ by contrast, is jovial and encouraging, with few flaws to speak of save for a bad smoker’s cough.
However, a 39-hour tape was recorded of the real Travers, Disney and other actual participants during the filming of Mary Poppins. It attests to the truth and authenticity of Saving Mr. Banks. Apparently, Travers really was unpleasantly disagreeable and difficult to work with—and Walt Disney was amiable and good-natured, doing all he could to make her happy.
Travers’ childhood traumas and losses later formed the backbone of her Mary Poppins books. Travers’ dysfunctional childhood assure an almost literal ‘punch to the gut’ by the film’s end.
Saving Mr. Banks lets us see Disney through the eyes of a skeptic, stripped of his idealized persona, precisely so we can see him as just a man, a father’s son, and a father himself.
Travers had resisted Disney’s efforts for years, but she grudgingly accepts an offer to visit Disney’s studio in Los Angeles to look at the work they’ve done on the project, hear their songs, and offer her maddening input and criticisms of practically every step of the adaptation process. But as determined as she is to sink the project, Disney is equally determined to win her over and make her happy. The key to making her happy, though, is to unlock whatever painful secrets linger from her childhood, and Disney soon realizes that his previous understanding of the Mary Poppins books is woefully mistaken. Only when he looks deeper does he begin to see the truth, and it’s a stunning bit of revelation indeed, and will forever change how you view the film Mary Poppins and the books upon which it was based.
One of the best films of the year, Saving Mr. Banks is rated PG-13 and runs a much too quick 125 minutes. The film has won ‘Best Picture’ from the AFI Awards, and has been nominated for numerous other awards, including Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild nods for Best Actress for Emma Thompson. Saving Mr. Banks can be a ‘tear jerker,’ so take tissue.