The first movie I did for this blog series, The Reluctant Dragon, was more of a dramatized behind the scenes look at the animation process than an actual movie. This movie isn’t anything like that, but there are a few common elements. Saving Mr. Banks is the dramatization of Walt Disney’s efforts to acquire film rights to Mary Poppins from author P.L. Travers. I’ve looked at the background behind Mary Poppins before, but it’s worth looking at it again for the sake of comparing it to today’s subject.
The backstory for this movie begins with an Australian documentary about P.L. Travers’ childhood, ‘The Shadow of ‘Mary Poppins”’. While producing the documentary, producer Ian Collie noticed there was an obvious biopic that could come of the story. This project attracted the attention of the BBC at the time, and they decided to fund the project. It would look at both the creative disputes between Travers and Walt Disney, while also looking at Travers’ rough childhood. This production of course needed songs and footage owned by the Disney Corporation to work properly, but they still moved forward with the project, hoping that they could later acquire the licenses.
However, Disney found out about the script before the BBC approached them. They decided that they had three choices: purchase the script and shut the project down, put the film in turnaround, or co-produce the film. They chose the third option.
Tom Hanks was considered early on to portray Walt Disney himself, and he would become the first actor to ever portray the co-founder of the Disney company in a mainstream film. Hanks accepted the role, seeing it as a chance to “play somebody as world-shifting as Picasso or Chaplin.” To prepare for the role, he visited the Walt Disney Family Museum several times, and interviewed some of his former employees and relatives, including Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. The film was later dedicated to Diane, who died shortly before the film’s release.
After they failed to secure Meryl Streep for the part of Travers, Emma Thompson signed onto the role. Thompson described the role as the most difficult one she’s ever portrayed, saying that Travers was “a woman of quite eye-watering complexity and contradiction.” Other major cast members include Colin Farrell as Travers’s father, Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers’ chauffeur during her time in LA, and Bradley Whiteford and Jason Schwartzman played the Sherman Brothers (who wrote and composed all of the music in Mary Poppins).
The production team was given access to 36 hours of Travers’ audio recordings, the Shermans, and the writing team, which were produced during the development of Mary Poppins. They also acquired letters written between Walt and Travers between the 1940’s and 1960’s. Richard M. Sherman also worked on the film as a music supervisor, and shared his experiences working on the film. Although the Disney Corporation didn’t interfere with the filmmakers all that much, the studio requested that they omit any onscreen inhalation of cigarettes. Hanks disagreed with this, but it is part of company policy not to directly depict smoking. Instead, Walt is shown extinguishing a lit cigarette in one scene, and he says nobody can see him smoking due to the way it could affect his image. His smoker’s cough is also heard off-screen several times in the movie. Personally I think that’s a fair compromise.
If you take this movie purely at face value, it’s fantastic. Going back and forth between Travers’ childhood and working with Walt’s creative team enhances a lot of the drama. The acting is strong across the board, with Thompson and Hanks being particular highlights. Travers seems quite harsh when the movie begins, but by the end, you get why she’s so protective of her life’s work. I fully understand why they went this route with the movie, and if you’re not bothered by historical inaccuracy, I’d say this is a very easy recommendation for any fans of Mary Poppins.
That said, there are a number of differences between this movie and what actually happened. The difference that will likely bother nobody is the basic premise of the movie itself. It shows a bit of a power struggle between Travers and Walt, during the movie’s production. Travers keeps making demands, threatening to refuse the rights if they don’t comply with them. For the sake of drama, this does make the movie stronger. However in real life, Travers actually gave Disney film rights to Mary Poppins before she first travelled to the studio. To be fair, most of the dialogue is adapted from the many letters they sent each other over 20 years.
The bigger changes completely change the developing relations between Travers and the Disney Corporation. The film portrays Travers as slowly warming up to the musical approach of the movie, softening up Mary Poppins’ character, and the use of animation. In reality, she never approved of any of that, and never came around to the use of animation. Walt overruled her objections though, citing contract stipulations that he had the final say.
It is true however that Travers was not initially sent an invitation to the premier, until she insisted to be there.
The movie also portrays Travers being emotionally moved by the final product, intercut with happy memories with her father. In real life, the movie angered her. She felt that the film betrayed the artistic integrity of her work and her characters. After the premier, she reportedly demanded that Walt removed all the animated sequences. Walt’s response: “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”
In response, she vowed never to permit Disney to adopt her other novels for any purpose. Her will even bans all American adaptations of her work to any form of media. That said, she did warm up to the movie over time. When English writer Brian Sibley was approached for a possible sequel in the 1980’s, Travers said “I could only agree if I could do it on my own terms. I’d have to work with someone I trust.” She watched the movie with Sibley for the first time since the premier, and she actually got excited at times. She thought that some aspects of the film were excellent, while others were unappealing. That sequel never went into production, but she did authorize a stage adaptation in the 90’s, under the condition that only English-born writers were to be involved.
Saving Mr. Banks earned $117 million on a $35 million budget, making it a successful small scale production. It received mostly positive reviews from critics, with most of them praising the performances from Thompson, Hanks and Farrell, but it wasn’t what you could call acclaimed. The Chicago Tribune review wrote, “Thompson’s the show. Each withering put-down, each jaundiced utterance, lands with a little ping.” The Independent’s review was mixed, saying that on one hand, Saving Mr. Banks “is a probing, insightful character study with a very dark undertow. On the other, it is a cheery, upbeat marketing exercise in which the Disney organization is re-promoting one of its most popular film characters.” The New York Post’s review heavily criticized the film’s historic accuracy, saying “Saving Mr. Banks is ultimately much less about magic than making the sale, in more ways than one.”
If you ignore the historical accuracy, Saving Mr. Banks is a great dramatic film about the struggle to acquire film rights to one of Walt Disney’s greatest pictures from a stubborn author. However, it’s hard to ignore the film’s much more optimistic ending when you know how Travers truly reacted to the movie. In some ways this film feels more like a PR move than an honest work of art, especially considering they were trying to get a sequel greenlit at the time of this movie’s release. It’s not enough to ruin the movie for me by any means, but it is enough to affect my enjoyment.
I’m hoping to finish this blog series over the weekend with the final movie on this list, Mary Poppins Returns. After that, I’ll likely go through the Indiana Jones movies for the rest of the month. For December, I’m hoping to watch 3 or 4 Christmas classics that I’ve never seen before. It will most likely include the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, It’s A Wonderful Life, and I haven’t yet decided what else to watch.