Momentous Monday: Saving Mr. Banks

A movie about that time Walt Disney tried to get Mary Poppins’ author to sell out to him…

This is one of those films that I really wanted to see when it came out, but just never got around to going to the theater, so I caught up with it on streaming recently. The cast and premise in the trailer hooked me immediately. It stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as, respectively, Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, aka author and Mary Poppins’ creator.

The film itself was pitched as chronicling the somewhat troublesome relationship  between the two as Walt attempts to adapt Mrs. Travers’ book into the 1964 film musical we all know, Mary Poppins. Walt’s childlike wonder clashes completely with Mrs. Travers’ almost cynical realism, and with two great actors playing these characters, it looked like a lot of fun.

Which I nonetheless missed on its first run. As for Mary Poppins, I know that I saw it as a kid because all of us had every single classic Disney film shoved down our throats as a child no matter when we were born — it was just a matter of when those re-releases or “escapes” from the vault happened like clockwork.

I remember enjoying the film as a kid, but the first time I watched it as an adult, my initial reaction was, “My god, Mary Poppins is a total bitch.”

In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Travers comes across as a total bitch on steroids from her first seconds on film.

We catch up with her in her London home in 1961, on the day that she’s supposed to fly off to Los Angeles (with the British mispronunciation of Law Sangelees — argh!) in order to meet with Walt to finally negotiate a deal on selling the rights to the characters.

It’s not an idea she’s fond of, although her agent does remind her that she hasn’t exactly published anything recently and royalties have dried up. She’s also had to let her maid go to cut back on expenses, and if she wants a quick infusion of cash, this is the way to do it.

She reluctantly boards the eleven-hour flight to Los Angeles, only to immediately start abusing the crew by insisting that she doesn’t need their help, and there are very telling moments about her complete lack of empathy — maybe borderline sociopathy? — when a woman with an infant offers her suitcase for the flight attendant to take up front so that Mrs. Travers can keep hers stowed above her seat.

Does Mrs. Travers thank the woman for her gesture? Nope. She just notes that there’s a baby and wonders, “Is that going to be a nuisance on this eleven-hour flight?”

Bang — put the capital B in Bitch right there.

By the way, I’m referring to them as Walt and Mrs. Travers for a reason very specific to the film. Another gigantic pet peeve of Mrs. Travers is when people don’t call her exactly that. Although her first name is Pamela and her pen name starts with P.L., she insists on only ever being called Mrs. Travers.

Kind of ironic because in real life she never married, but all that will be revealed later. God forbid, though, that anyone should call her Pamela or Pam or even P.L. And don’t even think of shortening it to just Mrs.

Meanwhile, Walt hates to be called Mr. Disney, because “that was my father,” and in fact he’s on a first-name basis with everyone in his employ and vice versa. Now, this may have also been a huge cultural difference between the Britain and U.S. of 1961, and especially the already informal L.A. and entertainment industry.

But it does emphasize that both parties consider what people call each other to be very important and keeping an ear out for who refers to whom and how at which points in the film is a really strong indicator in the script of how they’re trying to manipulate each other and who’s winning.

While the film focuses on the tumultuous several weeks during which Mrs. Travers is in Beverly Hills, Burbank, and environs in order to decide whether to sell her most beloved creation before a jump-forward to the movie’s premiere three years later, there’s a parallel story running in Australia in 1906, during which time Mrs. Travers is the seven-year-old Helen Goff, recently relocated to the very rural Allora, Queensland with her mother, younger sister, and alcoholic Irish father who inspires her to be a dreamer.

Yeah, that didn’t stick when she got to adulthood, obviously, but Mrs. Travers is the real focus of the story, and the brilliance of the script is that it takes this woman who was introduced as a totally unreasonable, inflexible, well, bitch, and peels the onion until we finally realize exactly why she is how she is.

And that’s kind of the key to the film working for one simple reason — no matter how many times her character throws wrenches into the works — like refusing the casting of Dick Van Dyke, not wanting it to be a musical, and banning anything animated — we all know what we got in the film Mary Poppins, so, clearly, Mrs. Travers was not able to stop the project.

The real story unfolding is Helen’s relationship to her father, and her slow disillusionment with him and with herself. And yes, we do meet the inspiration for Mary Poppins in the form of Helen’s own great-aunt and namesake Helen, who actually failed at her job.

It’s a great credit to Emma Thompson as an actress that she has absolutely no qualms about making us hate her character from the first frame, and then slowly luring us in as her humanity leaks out.

Likewise, Hanks pulls an equally humanizing turn in his portrayal of Walt, as he starts out as this apparently shallow media mogul money machine, but the scene in which his monologue finally convinces Mrs. Travers to let the movie be made likewise humanizes the hell out of the character — not to mention connects with Mrs. Travers on so many levels.

The only reason in this scene that I did not think that Walt finally sicced a pack of expensive lawyers on tracking down Mrs. Travers’ life story to give him ammo was that he managed to catch the next flight from L.A. to London after hers, so he just wouldn’t have had time, so he really did intuit her life story from his, with the topper being the one biographical detail his secretary and executive assistant managed to find.

I also have to wonder, since the closing credits include the audio of one of the actual development sessions between the co-screenwriter, composers, and real P.L. Travers (in which they all sound very cordial and collaborative) whether Mrs. Travers’ bitchiness wasn’t really, really played up for this film.

Of course, she was dead by the time it was made — born in 1899, she died in 1996. Not a bad run, really.

The other things that make the film so enjoyable are the attention to period detail — recreating 1961 Los Angeles and, even more-so, Disneyland with a butt-ton of extras, isn’t easy, after all — and the casting and acting all around is pitch-perfect.

As noted, Hanks and Thompson own their roles, with Hanks vanishing into Walt, and Thompson carries the film on her shoulders, in turns nasty and vulnerable.

Other standouts are Colin Farrell in a rare pseudo-hero role as Helen/Mrs. Travers’ father, the always memorable Ruth Wilson as her mother, and Rachel Griffiths as the great aunt who inspired Mary Poppins.

On the L.A. side of things, Paul Giamatti, who also vanishes into his role, plays her Disney-assigned driver in L.A. and his is the only character who she ever allows to call her by her first name.

The rest of the Disney people we see are also perfectly cast: Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the sibling composers of the film, Richard and Robert Sherman; Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, co-screenwriter or the film, and Melanie Paxson and Kathy Baker as Walt’s secretary and executive assistant, both part time Mrs. Travers wranglers.

Two actors are listed as playing Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in the film, and while I assume that they must have been somewhere in the 1964 Grauman’s Chinese film premiere sequence, I never spotted them.

TL;DR: If you’re a fan of either Hanks or Thompson, love Disney, or Hollywood insider historical stuff, or just well-made movies, then this is one worth putting in your queue.

By the way, if you want to read a detailed and very correct script analysis of how the film’s screenplay was constructed, you can do so here.

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