Saving Mr. Banks: The Backstory of Mary Poppins From Book to Film

As children many of us grew up on songs from the film Mary Poppins.  We remember singing “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, the medicine go down.”  Many of us also as children sang “supefragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is very quite atrocious.” In spite of seeing the film as a child, I never knew the story behind it. I would never have suspected that these songs were rebuffed by the original author of Mary Poppins. It is this backstory that Disney illuminates in Saving Mr. Banks by showing us the contentious contract that Walt Disney himself negotiated with the author of Mary Poppins for twenty years in his visionary fulfillment of the book ‘s adaptation to film. The film stars the inimitable Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and the accomplished Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of the original book, Mary Poppins. The film is set during the 1960’s in California.  Chivalry, diplomacy, and family loyalty were three of the prevailing attitudes reflected during this time. They are adequately portrayed through the characters.  During the film, Walt Disney shows Travers the utmost respect and decorum and both Disney and Travers are committed to the project in spite of their dogmatic opinions on how the film would be presented.  Saving Mr. Banks takes us through the musical process, and ultimately through the originally unwanted animation.  Working with Travers proves to be a daunting task to which Disney is committed because he promised his children that he would bring the book to film.

Travers is recalcitrant, intractable, and cantankerous throughout the entire process of developing the screenplay including the musical score for the film.  When the film opens, Travers’s attorney makes us aware of the two decades that have passed since Walt Disney first requested the rights to make the film.  With her financial stability depleting, Travers acquiesces and agrees to allow the process of adaptation to move forward; however, there is one caveat: all communications must be recorded and there must not be any animation.  Unfortunately, the one film genre that Disney is known for is animation.  He unwillingly agrees.  The process becomes quarrelsome because they each have separate agendas regarding the production of the film.  Travers, a British citizen, has her own views on how seriously she wants two of the characters to be depicted. She deplores what she sees as frivolity regarding the Disney empire. The title of the film takes its name from one of the characters in the book.  Mr. Banks, one of the main characters in the book, is a facsimile of Travers’s real life father. Disney is unaware that there is a connection between Travers and her characters in the story.  It is this connection that holds up the creative process.

As the action rises, we see the challenges that Mrs. Travers has as a young child and as an adolescent. Travers grew up with an alcoholic father and with a docile mother.  Travers’s father had difficulty maintaining a job and he was chronically ill because of his excessive drinking.  He died during Travers’s childhood.  She felt guilty because she believed that she was not everything that her father wanted her to be.  Thus, during the film’s production, she wants to pay homage to her father.  She wants to make sure that the portrayal of  Mr. Banks (Disney once again had no knowledge that the story Mary Poppins had elements of Travers’s life) was accurate.  Travers did not want the portrayal of her father to be desiccated.  Near the end of Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney realizes that Mary Poppins is based on Travers’s life.  Disney, at that juncture makes a personal connection with Travers.  He shares with her his personal difficult childhood experiences.  His identification with her made her decide to move toward completion of the film, in spite of its animation.  Disney assures her that her father’s character would be an authentic portrayal of his life in all of his goodness and he assured her that the character Mary Poppins would be similar to her character in the book.

Emma Thompson gives a convincing performance.  She is able to show the stubborn disagreeable temperament that Travers must have had.  Thompson’s depiction of Travers is often superb when conveying Travers’s dismissive attributes.  Thompson is able to convey Travers’s lack of satiety with both the ideas of the musicians or with the ideas of the writers of the screenplay. Through Thompson’s performance, we are able to see Travers’s dissatisfaction. Thompson’s performance is compelling as the audience begins to fully understand Travers.  As the production of Mary Poppins is completed, one sees the reserved elation exuded by Thompson.  Thompson’s captivating performance helps one want to reexamine the original book as well as Disney’s film so that all of the literary process could be fully appreciated.  I just wish that I had seen the Broadway production of Mary Poppins.

Tom Hanks plays a tenacious Walt Disney.  He is not deterred by hardship.  His childhood was difficult.  He clearly depicts the etiquette of the time period regarding how women were treated during the 60’s.  Disney’s gentility toward Travers is fully conveyed. Because the film is largely about Travers, Hanks plays a less dominant role than Thompson.  Thus, Hanks has less of a pivotal role than Thompson.  Nevertheless, he plays his role well.

As the film credits role, authentic recordings of the original process are played. We hear Travers voice, we hear her recalcitrance, we hear her reluctance, and we hear her strong will.  These recordings help validate the authenticity of the film.  Without Saving Mr. Banks, I would have never know that there was a real life story behind the making of the film, Mary Poppins.  Although this film is rated PG, it’s more for adults who can appreciate the literary and creative process that is involved in filmmaking.  The film’s setting helps to maintain the film’s family atmosphere although young children and most teenagers would fail to appreciate the ingenuity of the film.  They will however, appreciate the highly chimerical Mary Poppins since it “will help the medicine go down.”

If you desire a quality film with no objectionable content, then this film is for you.  It has great acting, a great story, and great cinematography that captures the zeitgeist of the 60’s. It is highly enjoyable and may even help you break out into singing a song with unintelligible words.

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