Like many children of this modern era, my first introduction to Mary Poppins and Number Seventeen Cherry-Tree Lane came courtesy of the Walt Disney Company and the wonderful Ms. Julie Andrews.
It wasn’t until several years later when I was introduced to the book, wonderfully penned by Mrs. P. L. Travers, that I realized it was all a lie. The cheery singing Mary Poppins with her spoonfuls of sugar and silly words was nowhere to be seen. I had learned the true meaning of that phrase of our time, “I want to finish the book first.”
Luckily children are resilient and I was able to come to terms with the lie that so many young minds had been fed. I accepted the gap in truth between Mary Poppins in print and Mary Poppins on screen and went on with my life.
Then like a wind from the East came, “Saving Mr. Banks,” the long-awaited answer to the questions of well-read children of the last century. Disney’s latest biopic of the journey or Mary Poppins from page to screen has finally closed that gap.
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is in many ways, the incarnation of the fictional nanny she wrote of. She’s stern, stubborn, and routine driven. For 20 years she’s brushed off the requests of Walt Disney himself to turn Mary Poppins into a movie star. She’s a tough cookie.
Unfortunately, time and money has run out and against her will she’s sent into the belly of the beast—Walt Disney Studios. For several weeks we see her cling tightly to the rights to her story as a creative team bombards her with music and dancing and (much to her disliking) animation, backed by the man, the legend, Mr. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks).
These two could not be more different, made most evident by her insistence that everyone refer to her as Mrs. Travers while he won’t be called anything but Walt.
As Mrs. Travers fights tooth and nail for her beloved Mary Poppins, going so far as to record each and every meeting and make extreme requests like not allowing the color red in the film, we learn about her upbringing in rural Australia with her father (Colin Farrell), mother (Ruth Wilson) and the real Mary Poppins.
Of course, we all know how this one ends, but sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, and this journey is beautiful. It’s a well-balanced story of the magic and realities of childhood, the movies, and the compromises that we must all make.
Mrs. Travers is inspiring. She’s tough, but much like Mary Poppins herself, she means well. Quite often she’s the only woman in the room, defending her own dignity as well as that of her characters. And I have to admit, as much as I love the magic of Disney, I totally understand not wanting Mickey to get his hands on your work of literature. Laudably, in the end, it is her decision to hand over the rights and she does it on her terms and her turf. Ms. Thompson is as inspiring in this role as the woman she’s portraying. P. L. Travers could have easily come out of this looking like a silly, emotional woman who doesn’t like cartoons, but what we get is a woman who is strong and honest, reserved but has her moments of whimsy. She’s an absolute delight.
Then there’s Disney. Mr. Hanks as Walt himself is almost indescribable. Physically he’s not exactly a ringer for this myth of a man, but he embodies his spirit (or at least the spirit my generation has bestowed on him). He’s more the man than the legend but without completely removing the magic, something which Mr. Hanks excels at. Although I’m not sure many of us have ever imagined the great Walt Disney as an everyman, under the careful watch of Tom Hanks we believe it. He’s perfect, magical, and flawed. Yes, I meant flawed.
A Disney movie about Disney and a Disney movie could have been very self-congratulatory. “Saving Mr. Banks,” side-steps that with the grace of an animated tap-dancing penguin (and that’s a good thing)…and stick around for the credits, the original audio from the meetings with Mrs. Travers are well worth a few extra minutes of your time.
Countdown to Christmas Day 13: