“Saving Mr. Banks”
Delivers Spoonful of Sugar
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
What if Walt Disney met Mary Poppins? There’s a movie about it. Well, actually about Uncle Walt’s negotiations with P.L. Travers for the screen rights to her Mary Poppins novels.
“Saving Mr. Banks” stars Emma Thompson as a tweedy Pamela Travers and a mustachioed Tom Hanks as Disney. It’s currently working its magic at the Tropic Cinema.
The title is a reference to the father of the children in the Mary Poppins stories, a character modeled on Travers’s own father.
While Disney did in fact invite Travers to Hollywood to clench the deal after 15 years of pursuing the rights to make his celebrated “Mary Poppins,” it didn’t happen exactly as depicted in this likeable retelling.
Mrs. Travers was a grouchy, stiff-upper-lipped Brit (though actually born in Australia). She didn’t want to sell her rights to Disney, but her books had stopped selling and she needed the money. At her agent’s urging, she flew to California where she was ensconced in the Beverley Hills Hotel and plied with tea and cookies.
Walt Disney wanted the Mary Poppins character (we’re told) to keep a promise to his daughters. But Travers is resistant. “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,” she says.
Thus, in addition to paying top dollar, Disney gave her script approval -- which turns out to be the bane of everyone’s existence. She harangues the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting team (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak), complains about the costumes and sets.
The relationship between Disney and the writer was prickly at best. While the movie shows her crying tears of joy at the film’s world premiere, they were in fact tears of disappointment.
At the time “Mary Poppins,” a musical about a magical nanny, was the most expensive live-action film Disney had ever produced.
The story jumps back and forth between 1961 Burbank and her childhood as a little girl named Helen Goff. As the title hints, she had daddy issues. Her alcoholic father is played by Colin Farrell. The thesis here is that childhood misery begets adult creativity.
Walt Disney had a similar impoverished background, but their viewpoints of life differ. In Travers’s books, Mary Poppins seeks solutions to problems. On the screen she merely wishes them away.
As A.O. Scott noted in The New York Times, “It would be unfair to dismiss this picture … as an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It’s more of a mission statement.”
So no wonder we get a slightly sanitized version. Like the song in “Mary Poppins” said, A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.