What if the grumpiest woman in creation met the inventor of the Happiest Place on Earth? That’s the nominal premise behind the true-life biopic Saving Mr. Banks. The film, a joint production between Disney and the BBC, chronicles the often contentious meeting of minds that occurred when American filmmaker Walt Disney tried to adapt the work of British author P.L. Travers. And while it sounds like the makings of some publicity-minded puff piece on the part of the Walt Disney Corporation, it’s actually a lovely look behind the scenes of a family favorite and a glimpse at the artistic temperaments that went into its creation.
In the mid 1960s, Walt Disney (here, wisely embodied by beloved acting icon Tom Hanks) tried to make good on a 20-year-old promise. He had pledged to his (then young) daughters that he would adapt their favorite bedtime story Mary Poppins into a Disney movie. Following an insane amount of negotiation and some serious recalcitrance on the part of Travers (given full, thorny life by Emma Thompson), she finally agreed to come to Hollywood and oversee a script based on her much-loved children’s book series about a magical nanny. If she didn’t like the adaptation, however, she wouldn’t sign over the rights.
Right away we’re made aware of the fact that Travers isn’t quite what we picture when we think of a beloved author of childhood fantasy. Hardheaded, highly serious, hermit-like and persnickety to a fault, Travers really can’t stand the idea of turning a character who’s like a member of her family over to a cartoon-hawking philistine like Walt Disney. But, unwilling to write any more books, she needs the money. Disney, on the other hand, is basically Travers’ polar opposite—and that’s pretty much the point Saving Mr. Banks tries to drive home. Walt is gregarious, fun-loving and eternally childlike. Travers is anything but. It’s this yin and yang dichotomy that, presumably, made their collaboration so good.
The film focuses far more on Travers than Disney, bouncing back and forth to spill details about her early childhood in rural Australia. Colin Farrell plays Travers’ father, a happy-go-lucky dreamer trapped in the body of an unhappy bank clerk. While his imaginative attitude obviously leaves a mark on young Travers, it’s leavened by the fact that he was also a self-loathing alcoholic who had a hard time functioning in the real world. Such is the curse of dreamers whose wishes never seem to come true. The point being that art—even a fantasy about magical nannies—often imitates life.
We get quite a bit less of Disney’s background—no flashbacks, per se—but we’re left with the impression that Disney had a love-hate relationship with his own father. It’s that little patch of common ground that ultimately allows Disney and Travers to work together. Both are determined to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen. Obviously this tale of broken families magically united strikes a deep cord with both of them.
When Mr. Disney isn’t in the picture, it’s mostly Travers trying to collaborate with a trio of frustrated filmmakers: screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). It’s these three that bear the brunt of Travers’ wrath. She hates lead actor Dick Van Dyke, she despises the frivolous music, and she absolutely loathes animation in any form. As history can attest, Travers didn’t get her wish on a lot of that stuff. Lest you doubt her ability to nitpick, however, stick around for the closing credits—they feature actual audio recordings of the brainstorming sessions in which Travers and the filmmakers butted heads.
Despite the Disney pedigree, Saving Mr. Banks isn’t a film for kids. It’s an intimate, rather bookish character drama about childhood disappointment and adult resentment. Clearly it gets much more of its DNA from the BBC side of the family. Which is probably just as well. Too much of that Disney magic and this could have come across as corporate hagiography. Fortunately Thompson saves the film from sugary over-sentiment with a character that is incredibly uptight, but understandably so. Between her painfully complicated P.L. Travers and Hanks’ refreshingly uncomplicated Walt Disney, Saving Mr. Banks develops nicely into a story about artistic collaboration and compromise. In the end—by showing how even a “simple” children’s story can lift sprits, exorcise demons and change lives for the better—the film delivers some well-earned tears and smiles. It’s just the sort of love letter to moviemaking magic that longtime fans of Mary Poppins can appreciate.