This biographical drama about Walt Disney and P L Travers, directed by John Lee Hancock, is out on general release today. Emma Street detects more than a spoonful of sugar-coating.
Walt Disney originally decided to make a film adaption of PL Travers’ Mary Poppins in 1938 and then had to spend over 20 years persuading the author that this was a good idea. She finally capitulated in 1961. The new Disney film Saving Mr Banks is an account of Travers’ (as portrayed by Emma Thompson) trip to Los Angeles to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and hammer out final negotiations before she gave her permission for the film to be made.
The 1960s period details in this film are sumptuous – everything is spot-on from the clothes to the food to the Mickey and Goofy soft toys which look like naff fairground knock-offs because that’s how Disney toys looked back then. There are flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Queensland and her relationship with her father (brilliantly portrayed by Colin Farrell), a failed bank manager and alcoholic who died when Travers was 8 years old and whom she loved dearly.
Saving Mr Banks gets all the details right yet wraps the whole thing around a fairly shaky central premise: that Travers, having never gotten over her father’s death, created Mr Banks in the Mary Poppins stories as a substitute to undergo redemption on her father’s behalf.
“It’s not the children she comes to save, it’s their father. It’s your father,” Disney tells Travers.
Wherever that revelation came from, it wasn’t from the Mary Poppins books where Mr Banks is a perfectly contented fellow who doesn’t go through any of the tribulations that David Tomlinson’s character had to endure in the film. We know from the book that “everybody in the Banks household was glad of Mary Poppins’ arrival”.
It’s infuriating, Hollywood’s need to portray everything as unresolved daddy issues. Pamela Travers was by all accounts a difficult woman to get along with but why can’t we just accept that she was a prickly difficult woman without the need for a pat psychological explanation? Likewise, why the focus on finding a purpose for Mary Poppins’ appearance? In the book she simply arrives by the east wind and leaves by the west. She has a job of work to do in between times and she does it. She doesn’t have motivation, for goodness’ sake. This is the slippery slope of bullshit that ends up with filmmakers giving Willy Wonka a dentistry-based backstory and the Grinch a history of being bullied.
Pamela Travers was reluctant to hand over the rights to her book because she was worried that Disney’s production would be shallow and sentimental and, to be fair, she was right to worry.
I am not criticising Disney’s Mary Poppins for a minute, by the way. It’s one of my all time favourite things ever. Not just favourite films either, actual favourite things. Even the worst aspects of the film – the overly long dancing chimney sweep number and Dick Van Dykes strangulated vowel sounds (“It’s Meiarry Pauwpyins!”) don’t diminish my love for it.
The cast in Mary Poppins is so very perfect – Glynis Johns as the suffragist mother (“Put those things away, you know how the cause upsets Mr Banks”), David Tomlinson as Mr Banks the bowler-hatted middle class hero, Marni Nixon providing the voice for all 3 singing geese in “It’s a Jolly Holiday”. It has the two least annoying child actors in any film ever. And I’ve watched Mary Poppins dozens of times and can cheerfully belt out a rendition of “Sister Suffragette” or “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” at a moment’s notice. The very best thing about Saving Mr Banks is that it effectively shares the same soundtrack.
But back to the narrative of Saving Mr Banks – Disney assures Travers that her books are very dear to him and that he has no wish to devalue them. He merely wants the chance to bring happiness to the world. Because Walt, here, is a twinkly-eyed man-child as well as a shrewd businessman.
Travers knew that Disney always messed with the story and would have been aware of previous examples of Disney films with novels as their source. Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians, for example, where two significant characters from the books were completely removed requiring that the number of rescued puppies be increased from 97 to 99 to make up the deficit. Or the adaptation from print to screen of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio which involved a complete personality change for its main character in order to make him seem more innocent and friendly. And once Disney got his hands on Felix Saltern’s Bambi – A Life In the Woods, almost all the violence, bloodshed and death from the book was jettisoned in order to make way for a cutesy tale about inter-species friendship.
Disney gave Travers script approval rights but still ran roughshod over many of her stipulations – including her refusal to allow an animated sequence and her disapproval of Dick van Dyke being cast in the role of Bert. But Travers was always happy with Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, even though her portrayal of the characters was everything that Travers feared the Disneyfied version would be – smiley, twinkling and cavorting; not to mention a good deal posher than her literary counterpart.
The character of Poppins was probably partially based on Travers herself, although her Aunt Ellie provided many of Mary Poppins’ phrases and mannerisms – as well as her parrot head umbrella. Aunt Ellie is played in the film by Rachel Griffiths – there isn’t nearly enough of her. Thompson gives a great performance and is the ideal choice to play Travers. Not least because she’s already got fictional nanny experience on her CV as Nanny McPhee (based on Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda stories).
Tom Hanks in his role as Walt Disney represents the first time that Disney has been portrayed in a mainstream film, and the Disney Corporation are as protective of Uncle Walt’s public image as Scientologists are with L Ron Hubbard’s. Hanks certainly looks the part – his moustache deserves recognition in itself. Several iconic Disney images are recreated including Disney sharing screen time with Tinkerbell from Adventures in the Magic Kingdom.
Given that Saving Mr Banks is itself a Disney production, it isn’t surprising that Disney is portrayed in an almost wholly positive light. He’s a lovely, homespun, straight-up kind of a guy. One “Damn!” and a brief scene of him smoking constitute the only dark sides that we are permitted to see. Saving Mr Banks wraps everything up neatly and gives it a happy ending. Travers and Disney meet, they help to create something beautiful and they both learn a little something about each other – and themselves – in the process. In reality, Travers was never happy with the Disneyfication of Mary Poppins. Seeing her book portrayed on screen was not the cathartic experience that the filmmakers would have us believe – although it certainly benefitted her financially.
Perhaps in 50 years’ time, there will be a new film – “Reinventing Mrs Travers”, perhaps – dramatising the events around the making of Saving Mr Banks and why Travers was portrayed the way she was. Of course, we know the answer to that already: Disney always messes with the story.