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‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Reveals the Battle Over Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins’

Tom Hanks is in another movie receiving Oscar buzz? In Saving Mr. Banks, he plays Walt Disney, who wants to adapt Mary Poppins into a film, against the wishes of the author, played by Emma Thompson. Nico Hines on the closing selection of the London Film Festival.

François Duhamel

No wonder Mary Poppins needed a spoonful of sugar. The forthcoming Saving Mr. Banks is a dark film that tells the heart-breaking true story behind one of the great characters in children’s movie history.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the nanny’s formidable creator, is pitted against Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who promised his daughters that he’d bring Poppins to the big screen. The thing is, that pledge goes against the author’s wishes.

Saving Mr. Banks goes behind the scenes of the ferocious battle to make what was to become the famous 1964 musical adaptation. For 20 years, Travers refused to grant the rights to Disney. Eventually she said she would relent, but only if the movie was made to her specifications, which ranged from choosing the precise tape measure used in one scene to the exclusion of the color red from the entire movie.

Through a series of flashback sequences, we learn that Travers’s intense stubbornness is rooted in her own traumatic childhood. The raw emotion that builds up through the movie is, thankfully, helped down by a spoonful of sugar provided by Thompson’s comic mastery of the irascible Travers, which begins as soon as she sets foot on the plane from London to Los Angeles.

The movie focuses on a compelling personality clash between Disney and the woman he is trying to seduce into handing over the rights to her creation. He welcomes her to L.A. with a chauffeur and a room at The Beverly Hills Hotel stuffed with cuddly Disney characters. She picks up a soft toy of Winnie the Pooh and laments the fate of one of the finest characters in children’s literature. “Poor A.A. Milne,” she says, a line Thompson herself added to the script.

Speaking after a first screening that closed the London Film Festival (the film will open in the U.S. on Dec. 20), Thompson said it had been a joy to be so badly behaved. “I just let out my inner prickly pear,” she said. “I tell you it’s such a relief to be rude without any repercussions whatsoever. Can you image it? I don’t want to go to your fucking press conference I’m bored of them, I don’t want to come out to your birthday party because I got bored of you years ago. Imagine you could just come out with these things. And she did!”

Thompson created her own version of Mary Poppins in the 2005 movie Nanny McPhee, which she starred in and wrote. She said: “My husband did point out to me: ‘It’s interesting that you created a magical nanny, and you played someone that created a magical nanny … do you suppose that behind every magical nanny there’s a cantankerous, opinionated old bat?’”

The P.L. Travers backstory is told at length in what feels almost like a separate, rather less enjoyable, film. Colin Farrell is passable as Travers’s father, the inspiration for the patriarch Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, but some of the sequences verge on the melodramatic. The scenes set in 1960s California are far more entertaining as Travers clashes memorably with an excellent supporting cast, which includes Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, and Paul Giamatti, all of whom play staff members at Disney.

At the top of the corporation, of course, is Hanks, who takes on one of the biggest roles in Hollywood. Discussing the film on Sunday, he admitted playing Disney brought a unique set of challenges. “There was a responsibility, let me put it that way, which is different from trepidation. Without doubt it’s a substantial gauntlet to throw down—growing up, Walt Disney was as ubiquitous in our lives as Uncle Sam, Smokey the Bear, the President of the United States, and Mickey Mouse himself,” Hanks recalled.

“I hadn’t a clue where to begin apart from my own memories,” he said. “There’s a lot of video out there and audio you can listen to, but unfortunately its mostly Walt Disney performing as Walt Disney. So when you can find those moments when he’s talking in his natural cadence about something other than ‘The new exciting realm of Tomorrowland which will be opening,’ that was worth its weight in gold.”

While Disney is a largely benevolent figure in this film—which is no surprise, since this production secured the cooperation of Walt Disney Pictures—it is a joy to see Thompson take on the might of the studios. She turns down an invitation to Disneyland, demands that Disney address her as Mrs. Travers, and makes it quite clear that she considers movie-making to be frivolous and overly concerned with the generation of money.

“I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons … These books do not lend themselves to prancing and chirping,” she says, railing against animation and musicals—both of which she explicitly rules out, at first. (Spoiler alert: there are eventually songs and animation in the Mary Poppins film.)

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As Hanks and Thompson do battle, there is a sweeping emotional tale that will have tears streaming down the faces of many people in the theatre. Despite the power of that story, it is the 1960s culture-clash exchanges that make this movie such a delight.