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Making 'Mary Poppins,' With More Than A Spoonful Of Sugar

<em>Saving Mr. Banks</em> chronicles Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) long campaign to persuade <em>Mary Poppins</em> author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to allow his movie-musical adaptation of her books.
Francois Duhamel
Walt Disney Pictures
Saving Mr. Banks chronicles Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) long campaign to persuade Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to allow his movie-musical adaptation of her books.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

That endlessly quoted line from Joan Didion's The White Album echoes with more than the usual resonance for the two adversaries duking it out for control over the movie adaptation of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks.

For 20 years Walt Disney, reportedly on his young daughters' say-so, had tried to wrestle a green light from P. L. Travers, who wrote the original novels about the discipline-minded governess who flew in through a London window to save a troubled family from itself.

In 1961, Travers flew from London to Los Angeles, invited by Disney to work for two weeks with writer Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers on the script and the score. Uncle Walt was hoping for compliance, but like Mary Poppins, Travers was no pushover. In fact she was a stubborn, argumentative piece of work.

Travers wrote tough-minded literature; the Disney machine made uplifting entertainment. Not to disparage either, but Travers' Mary Poppins was no Julie Andrews. She was an implacable termagant armed with a much tougher brand of love than Disney was prepared for. Anyone who really knew the character, or the author, might have predicted that this effort to mix oil and water would end in tears.

Saving Mr. Banks does end in tears, but they're Disney tears, as befits a movie about Disney made by Disney. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't see this beguiling piece of pop storytelling, built on half-truths whipped into shape for a storybook ending that never was.

Travers braves the streets of Los Angeles with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti) after Disney invites her to collaborate on the film.
Francois Duhamel / Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures
Travers braves the streets of Los Angeles with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti) after Disney invites her to collaborate on the film.

That's pretty much what you'd expect from the humane if expertly commercial hand of John Lee Hancock, who did the same for the fact-based The Blind Side, in which, come to think about it, Sandra Bullock was her own kind of Poppins, a bossyboots savior throwing her weight around for the greater good. Like the Mary Poppins film Disney would eventually serve up, Saving Mr. Banks is an affable, enjoyable spoonful of sugar that sweetens into palatability the sinus-clearing bite of the books — and the implacable iron lady who wrote them.

To have a dragon like Mary Poppins on your side was a big thrill for us kids growing up in post-Depression, postwar England. She may have been the T. rex of British nannies, but she was a protector and a believer in kids' ability to look out for themselves. There was more than a little of both in Travers, who's played in the movie by Emma Thompson, a vision in pursed lips, hair permed within an inch of its life, and the clipped syllables of a rigid defender of the queen's English. Queen Victoria, most likely.

Revered and lusted after this side of the Atlantic as the blooming rose of Howard's End, Sense and Sensibility, and Love, Actually, Thompson has far more kick to her when she mines the rich vein of fearsome British educators, like her warty Nanny McPhee or the quietly anti-Semitic headmistress in An Education -- a gorgon so like my own girls-school principal that I left the theater shaking.

Yet Thompson's schoolmarms always carry a barely suppressed undertow of fragility. So too her spinsterish Pamela Travers, a famous but cash-strapped author who's a pill-popping neurotic beneath her cool poise. This Travers curls her lip at the giant Mickey Mouse placed in her hotel room by way of welcome, only to cry herself to sleep later, clutching him to her neglected bosom.

Never mind that in real life Travers had a lively romantic history with both men and women, and raised an adopted son alone. She was anything but the prim, lonely virgin, forever on the brink of hysteria, that the movie makes her out to be.

By every account she was no picnic either — so by way of sympathetic explanation, Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith supply her with a plausible if awkwardly wedged-in back story. In flashbacks to her itinerant childhood in Australia, we learn that Mrs. Travers is neither Mrs., nor Travers, nor British by birth; she papered over a host of childhood sorrows with a self-invented construct.

As a child she was Helen Goff, a willing captive to her charming, feckless father (Colin Farrell, to the manner born), a failed bank manager and raging alcoholic who corralled his daughter into becoming his enabler and co-dreamer.

The movie draws neat and possibly accurate parallels between Travers' characters and the real-life people who helped and hurt the author as a little girl — among them a practical Aunt Ellie, played by the great Rachel Griffiths, who brings forth potted plants from a carpetbag and ... well, you know.

Walt Disney, played by an avuncular, subtly conniving Tom Hanks in slicked-down hair and a toothbrush mustache, gets his own Bad Dad back story too. But Disney has reinvented himself as the ultimate upbeat American, and he wants this glum Brit to toe the line.

He'd ultimately like her to be happy — Disney wanted everyone happy, or else — but he's also a wily businessman who exploits his own sad tale to get Travers to sign on for creative changes she hated. (Among them: that giddy suffragette mother, and Dick van Dyke in the role of Bert the chimney sweep. Let's not talk about the dancing penguins, which filled Travers with more bile than she could stomach.)

Interviewed recently in The New York Times, the surviving Sherman brother didn't remember his encounter with the holy terror very fondly. There are tapes of their sessions to back him up, yet the movie's funniest and sweetest scenes play out in the culture clash between Travers and the brothers, played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman.

Here as elsewhere — I could have done without Travers' relentlessly sunny driver, played, of all people, by Paul Giamatti — Hancock packs on the schmaltz. So far as I can tell, though, there's only one genuine potential whopper in Saving Mr. Banks. It comes right at the end, when Travers breaks down in tears at the glitzy Hollywood premiere, to which she had to invite herself because Walt Disney feared that she might make a scene.

In the movie, she's crying with relief at having her awful childhood symbolically turned into uplift. The historical record here is ambiguous, though by many accounts Travers actually went to pieces because she loathed the way Disney had bowdlerized her work. Certainly she gave no more permissions until 1994, when Cameron Mackintosh came cap in hand for his Broadway musical adaptation.

Were he alive today, Walt Disney would have kvelled over the ending of Saving Mr. Banks. For her part, Travers would have rolled her eyes, or maybe filed suit. In one sense, Disney won — but do stay for the credits, which come with a mischievous but, I like to think, loving tribute to the obstinate battle-ax who made his life miserable, and his blockbuster movie possible.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.