‘Saving Mr. Banks’ doesn’t quite save Disney (opinion)

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10:00 am EDT, December 30, 2013

“Wind’s in the East, Mist coming in – like something is brewing, and ‘bout to begin…”

Words made famous throughout the world by the 1964 Walt Disney Company film Mary Poppins. We all know Mary Poppins – the classic, bright, and colorful musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. But what’s seldom known is that before everyone’s favorite magical Nanny was brought to life by Julie Andrews, she was a character in the books of P.L. Travers – born “Helen Goff” – who based her characters and stories upon her own life.

Now, seventeen years after her death, The Walt Disney Company is trying to make amends for the way they treated Travers during the development of Mary Poppins – with the new biographical drama starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks.

The film tells the story of the fight between Walt Disney (Hanks) and P.L. Travers (Thompson) over the film rights to her Mary Poppins books. Disney – saying that he is honoring a promise to his daughters – has, for twenty years, been wheedling at Travers to sign the rights to him. Refusing to prevent her “beloved” Mary Poppins from becoming a cheery and charming musical animated circus, Travers has held the line firmly against Disney from 1938 to 1961, when she is informed by her literary agent that she is – almost entirely – out of money, and must take Disney’s offer. Her agent notes that Disney seems very interested in making the adaptation – even having offered her control over the shooting script for the film, which is something – the agent says – Walt Disney has never done before.

Throughout the film, we are treated to flashbacks portraying Travers’ youth with her father – Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) – and her loving relationship with him. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that the character of Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins is heavily based upon Travers’ own father; and she gets very defensive of the character – at one point exploding that Disney and his minions have made him “too cruel” and storming out of the studio. Travers wins out on that battle – approving an alternate ending to the film which features a new song by the Composer and Lyricist Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwatzman and B.J. Novak) entitled “Let’s go Fly a Kite,” centering around Mr. Banks’ redemption and fixing a damaged kite for his children.

On other battles, however, she loses – chiefly in her opposition to any and all animated sequences (at one point having believed that the famous dancing penguins from “Jolly Holiday” would be live penguins trained to dance).

One of the shining stars of the film, however, is Tom Hanks’ performance as Walt Disney. Charming and precocious, Hanks seems to leak the exuberance of Disney – having dedicated weeks of research into the man behind the mouse to perform the role with accuracy. Thompson also wows as Travers, packing an emotional punch in the final scene as she attends the Los Angeles premier of Mary Poppins – to which she was initially not invited – and is shown weeping as she watches the film.

In reality, they were tears of indignation and fury. In the film, they’re not described as such, but a scathing comment with regard to the dancing penguins betrays some hint of frustration.

Whether or not it was the Walt Disney Company’s intention, this biopic has shown that – while Disney himself may have possessed a charming and genial gentle side (which Hanks displays to great effectiveness in the film’s penultimate scenes) the film highlights Disney’s overt and complete disregard for Travers’ wishes, thus serving, mostly, as an illustratory film as to how the Walt Disney Company screwed over that one author – who hated the film so badly that she never forgave Disney – to make the film they wanted.

Saving Mr. Banks is now playing everywhere.

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