Movie Review: Saving Mr Banks

Generations of moviegoers have watched Mary Poppins and her famous umbrella soar across the sky, but few viewers are aware of just how much effort it took to bring the literary character to the big screen. “Saving Mr. Banks” remedies that by telling the backstory of the famous movie about a nanny who has magical abilities and a soft spot for children. “Saving Mr. Banks,” named for the father in the Mary Poppins book series, details how Walt Disney worked for more than two decades to turn the books into a motion picture. The film shows how musicians and writers collaborated to produce famous lyrics and groundbreaking animation scenes. Watching the creative process behind this classic work leaves the audience cheering for the project’s success.

At the heart of “Saving Mr. Banks” was P.L. Travers, the Australian author of eight books about the fictional Mary Poppins. The movie depicted how Travers was affected by her father, a dreamer who told elaborate stories but who suffered from a drinking problem. Travers used both the good and bad experiences of her childhood in the Mary Poppins character, and her books have been a favorite read for children around the world. She declined to allow the stories to be made into a film, although Walt Disney personally sought the movie rights for more than 20 years. Facing financial difficulty, Travers finally agreed to discuss the possibility of a movie. “Saving Mr. Banks” is focused on a two-week stretch in 1961 when Travers, played by Emma Thompson, visited California to work with the Disney creative team.

In trying to obtain the movie rights, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, gave Travers more control over the movie than he normally allowed authors. Disney told Travers that she had the ability to veto anything she did not like about the screenplay, and she immediately found much to dislike. “Saving Mr. Banks” derived much of its humor from the conflicts that Travers experiences with the writers and musicians. For instance, the lyricists enjoyed making up whimsical words such as “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Travers, a prim and proper lady who insisted that no one use her first name, had little patience for such poetic license. Travers required that her work sessions at Disney be taped, and the writers and cast of “Saving Mr. Banks” used those audiotapes to recreate the arguments Travers had with the creative team.

While Travers nearly comes to blows with the writers, the movie shows her developing a sweet and lasting friendship with her chauffeur, a gentleman named Ralph who is played by Paul Giamatti. He is the one character in the movie that does not pressure her about the Mary Poppins character, and she takes refuge in the time she spends with him.

Ralph drives Travers back and forth from her hotel to Walt Disney Studios, where much of the movie was filmed. A scene not to be missed is when Ralph drives Travers through the gates of Disneyland, where Walt Disney awaits by the iconic Mickey Mouse head at the front of the park. Disney shows Travers around his theme park, and the two go for a ride on the carousel, with Disney hoping that some of the park’s magical feelings rub off on Travers.

Part of the charm of “Saving Mr. Banks” was watching a bond develop between Disney and Travers. Both of them endured less-than-perfect childhoods, and both of them used their experiences to create fictional characters that delighted children. Disney understood how difficult it is for Travers to give up control of a character that she considered family. It was touching to watch Travers wrestle with the dilemma of allowing the Disney creative team to bend her stories into a commercially viable movie. She had a specific vision of how everything should look, from the Banks’ home to Mr. Banks’ mustache. Giving her vision over to someone else caused her many sleepless nights, and Thompson’s skillful portrayal made it easy to understand why the decision was so difficult.

Like all historical pieces, the outcome of “Saving Mr. Banks” is a foregone conclusion. Everyone knows that “Mary Poppins” eventually becomes a blockbuster movie, but watching the process of the movie’s creation leaves the audience holding a collective breath, wondering if Travers ever sees eye-to-eye with Disney. It is difficult not to cry right along with Travers when she finally attends the opening night of “Mary Poppins” three years after her visit to California. These are tears of joy, as moviegoers celebrate the creation of the “Mary Poppins” film and realize how close they came to never seeing it at all.