This week in my movie class, we saw the new comedy-drama from Disney, “Saving Mr. Banks”, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.
When Walt Disney tries to adapt a movie from the novel “Mary Poppins”, he realizes the task is considerably harder than he thought when its author proves difficult to work with.
Over the years, P.L. Travers (Thompson) gained great notoriety for her successful children’s novel “Mary Poppins”. However, after its initial popularity, sales of the book slowed; as a result, she saw precious little in royalties and by the early 1960’s found herself running out of money and forced into wide-ranging cost-cutting measures to maintain her lifestyle. For over a decade, The Walt Disney Company had been pursuing her in order to purchase the option on her book so that they can adapt it into a theatrical motion picture. After long resisting, desperation brought her to the point of capitulation.
Flying to Los Angeles from her home in London, Travers went to the Disney offices to meet Walt (Hanks) and negotiate the conditions under which she would allow the adaptation. Her requirements included making it a live action movie rather than a cartoon and that she would require final approval over the songs and screenplay; to that end, she worked with the composers and screenwriter, having all their sessions tape recorded so there would be a record of her input and their agreement to her instructions. Reluctantly, Disney and his creative people conceded to her demands just to make the movie.
The more Disney and his team work with Travers, the more imperious and unreasonable she seems. What Disney & Co. don’t know, however, are the secrets Travers has been hiding about her childhood which reveal why she is so protective of both her book and its characters. Despite the difficulties with Travers, Disney remains determined to get this movie made – not just because he believes it will be a hit but also because he promised his daughters he would do so since they were huge fans of the book. But what will Disney have to do in order to convince Travers to agree to the motion picture?
When you think of Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney in a picture about the making of “Mary Poppins”, you might assume it would get a rating of G. “Saving Mr. Banks”, however, gets a more appropriate PG-13 because it touches on very dark territory, particularly in the flashbacks about Travers’ childhood. Travers’ father, played by Colin Farrell, is initially portrayed as a fun-loving man who adores his daughters – especially Pamela (Thompson) – because of his playful nature. But incredibly disturbing facts lie behind her family life and the truth about the woman who inspired Mary Poppins.
While an interesting story, the film’s execution is flawed because Travers comes across as way too obnoxious for the audience to get behind. This proves problematic because it throws the movie into imbalance – based on the amount of screen time she gets, Travers is apparently the protagonist; it’s her story. Disney – despite being played by a major Hollywood star like Hanks – is really somewhat secondary to the telling of this tale. Yet, because Travers is so downright unpleasant, we wind up rooting for Disney, not Travers.
It’s not necessarily that we actively root against Travers; however, indirectly, we root against her to some degree at least by virtue of the fact that we find ourselves rooting for the character with whom she is doing battle (Disney). Admittedly, the filmmakers do try to make her sternness something of a caricature in order to make her seem more humorous – and thus more palatable – to the general public. For some members of the audience, this may work; for me, however, Travers was so relentlessly harsh for so long I personally found her too distasteful, even after knowing her tragic upbringing.