March 23, 2014


Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in SAVING MR. BANKS.


I worked for the Walt Disney Company from 2002 to 2006. Though I have mostly fond memories, I was never one to drink the fairy dust flavored Kool Aid. Perhaps that’s why I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed SAVING MR. BANKS. Yes, it is a Disneyfied take on a slice of film history but it’s hardly the sanitized picture many naysayers were expecting.

The biggest surprise is how much of the two hour film Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) isn’t in. He’s an important presence who’s there for the big moments but he’s not the feature attraction. That distinction belongs to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of a series of beloved children’s books featuring the character of Mary Poppins. Disney’s aggressive campaign to land the screen rights to the property (motivated, he says, by a promise made to his daughters) frames a series of extended flashbacks to the author’s tragic childhood in Australia.

Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) moves his family to rural Australia.

P.L. Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff, the oldest of three children. Her father, Travers (Colin Farrell), was a man with a big imagination and an even bigger problem with alcohol. He was also a screw-up at work and a source of constant frustration for his long suffering wife, Margaret (Ruth Wilson). Things get bad enough that, at one point late in the film, she tries to take her own life.

Travers Goff did die at a very young age, an event that scarred his whole family but was especially hard on young Helen. He was the source of her pen name and his memory would inform everything from her distrust of others (especially Disney) to the depiction of the Mr. Banks character in the MARY POPPINS books. It also goes a long way toward explaining the title of the film (a studio decision that some point to as a factor in the middling box office gross of SAVING MR. BANKS).

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) at the front gate of Disneyland.

When the film opens, Travers tries to rebuff another of what have become annual overtures by Walt Disney. She gets a reality check from her agent regarding her precarious finances and reluctantly agrees to fly to California and meet with a man she openly despises. While using the unsigned contract for the film rights as a dangling carrot, Travers turns pre-production on MARY POPPINS into a grand game of cat and mouse. These are some of the most electric scenes in SAVING MR. BANKS.

Travers insists that all meetings be recorded (something you’ll be thankful for if you stay through the closing credits) and she makes demands of the production team that are often arbitrary and cruel. A highlight: Travers insists that the color red appear nowhere in the film, just because. Watching Disney bow to this ridiculous request is a sight to behold.

B.J. Novak (L) and Jason Schwartzman as Disney songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman.

The road to Travers eventually signing over the film rights is rocky and often profoundly emotional. At the outset, she is horrified by overtly commercial attempts to woo her (like a hotel suite overstuffed with gift baskets and Disney plush). Production meetings typically degenerate into battles with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman). Travers is openly hostile to everyone associated with the studio and eventually heads back to London.

Of course, we all know the film got made but how Disney clinched the deal wasn’t a simple matter and it isn’t given short shrift here. On more than one occasion, he reneges on promises made to Travers and gives her every good reason to doubt his sincerity. The decision to add an animated sequence to MARY POPPINS is a particularly egregious example of Disney going back on his word. Still, the two eventually arrive at a place of mutual respect and understanding. The breakthrough moment, when the Sherman Brothers debut “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” for Travers, will have you reaching for the tissue box.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) dangles the screen rights to "Mary Poppins" like a carrot.

Performances are top-notch across the board. Colin Farrell breathes life into what could have been a two-dimensional character and Wilson does nice work along side him. Whitford, Novak and Schwartzman are particularly effective and more than hold their own in numerous scenes with Thompson (no small feat). It’s also nice to see Schwartzman reign in the weird for a change.

Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney with restrained gusto and does an admirable job of showing him as both a fatherly figure and a self-impressed ego maniac. A sequence shot at Disneyland has Walt handing out pre-signed autograph cards to tourists as he tries to impress an exasperated Travers. Hanks infuses the scene with an imperious air that feels like a knowing nod to Disney’s reputation as a benevolent dictator.

SAVING MR. BANKS really belongs to Emma Thompson and she is wonderful throughout. It’s a testimony to her considerable acting chops that we’re always rooting for Travers, even when she’s running roughshod over everyone in sight. A good chunk of credit must also be given to screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. The pair is careful to avoid pitfalls that might turn the Travers character into a repellant harpy, something I’m not sure a male screenwriter would have pulled off with as much skill.

Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) at another impasse in SAVING MR. BANKS.

The only real rough spot in SAVING MR. BANKS is a sequence depicting the Hollywood premiere of MARY POPPINS. It’s oddly paced and feels a little rushed. On the plus side, there are no attempts to re-create scenes from the film using bad lookalikes. Any clips we do see are taken directly from MARY POPPINS itself. Disney groupies will be also be happy with subtle in-jokes like the vintage studio logo used in the opening titles and a large map of Florida seen in the background of one shot. Production values are exceptional throughout and the blu-ray transfer is gorgeous.

SAVING MR. BANKS is a film that should have done better at the box office. It’s darker and more emotional than you might think but it’s also a heartfelt valentine to a beloved classic and a tribute to the amazing woman who gave us Mary Poppins. 


Click on either image below to purchase SAVING MR. BANKS or the new 50th Anniversary Edition of MARY POPPINS from Amazon.

CLICK to purchase SAVING MR. BANKS from Amazon.

CLICK to purchase the 50th Anniversary Edition of MARY POPPINS from Amazon.