MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo By Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks
It has long been known that author P. L. Travers was not delighted about how her character Mary Poppins was reimagined by Walt Disney for the 1964 musical movie. As an advisor to the filmmakers, she wrangled over the changes that the screenwriters made for a character that she felt was softened up from the novels. Travers was not originally invited to the premiere of the movie but asked for a ticket to attend the showing. After viewing the movie she told Walt Disney that she wanted all of the animated sequences removed. Walt walked away from her saying, “Pamela, the ship has sailed” and Travers made sure that Disney would never adapt any of the other remaining Mary Poppins books.
That’s the real story and it has been around for decades.
This is not the story of Saving Mr. Banks, a film that creates its own alternate reality to the making of Mary Poppins, choosing to jump back and forth between the author’s conflicts with Walt Disney and the story of her childhood, growing up in rural Australia. I had a hard time swallowing all of the psychological explanations for key characters and plot devices in the Poppins books. The movie even tries to persuade us that it was Walt Disney’s ability to unearth these past memories that opened up the author to granting permission for Mary Poppins to be made.
It’s all a lot of hooey. This does not get in the way of the many charms of Saving Mr. Banks, which features two wonderful performances by Tom Hanks as “Uncle Walt” and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are a lot of fun as the songwriting team of Robert and Richard Sherman and Paul Giamatti gives a pleasant turn as Ralph, the guy who gets to chauffeur Ms. Travers about town. A great cast and a capable director make the difference. I am not sure at the end of the movie whether I was shedding tears for Saving Mr. Banks or for Mary Poppins. But the manipulation worked.
The Australian sections of the film are well acted, but suffer from the deeper meanings imposed upon their story. The themes of alcoholism and deep depression that are eventually revealed make this film quite unacceptable for young children, a quality that is skirted completely in the trailers for Saving Mr. Banks.
Author P.L. Travers had every right to be upset about how here character was changed for the screen. I also think that Walt Disney made one of his greatest motion pictures, a musical that is still delightful and enjoyable 50 years later. Travers met her match in Disney and the world benefitted from her novels and his film. Authors these days are a bit more realistic about creative differences and willing to sell out at the right price.
P.S.: If you are interested at all in learning more about the Sherman Brothers, who became Walt Disney’s official songwriters for six years, I highly recommend the 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story. It is a fascinating story, full of joy and real emotion, and filled with some surprising revelations about how two brothers who were in many ways different could work together in creative ways. This film is so good, it almost helped me to forgive the Shermans for writing “It’s a Small World After All”. Almost.
Three halos: A charming film about creative differences and the power of stories.
Two pitchforks: Scenes of alcoholism, depression, smoking
Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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