The 1964 hit musical Mary Poppins was the last major project of Walt Disney’s illustrious film-making career before he died in 1966, and Saving Mr Banks explains why it was also the most headache-inducing, and indeed why he was lucky to live to see it.
Disney’s daughters were smitten by the original Mary Poppins book, and he promised them he would bring the story to the big screen. However, he hadn’t reckoned on the fierce resistance of the magical nanny’s creator, P. L. Travers.
She felt appalled at the idea of Disney sentimentalising — or worse, animating — her tales of Edwardian London, and resisted his overtures for years, until finally, grudgingly, and purely because she needed the money, she consented.
But even then she was supremely unaccommodating, despite his obvious enthusiasm for her work. Here was an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, and there is a rather neat symmetry in the way this story, too, is sentimentalised in John Lee Hancock’s beguiling film.
Significantly, just like Mary Poppins, Saving Mr Banks was made for the Disney Corporation. So who else to play Disney to Emma Thompson’s Travers but Hollywood’s twinkliest star Tom Hanks? And how else to play him but as winningly affable and avuncular?
In reality, the man who liked to be known as ‘Uncle Walt’ was as stubborn and irascible as Travers, and after some bad-tempered encounters in Los Angeles, he left his two brilliant songwriters, the Sherman brothers, to deal with her. She had promised to co-operate in return for full creative input, but her idea of co-operation didn’t tally with Disney’s.
Cleverly, at the end of the final credits, Hancock plays some of the original tape recordings from the first, painful story meeting, marrying fact with semi-fiction.
For the truth is that as soon as that meeting was over, Disney told the Shermans he was off to his house in Palm Springs and would be back when she’d gone.
She, in turn, hated the finished movie. She is said to have stormed up to Disney at the premiere insisting the animation sequence would have to go. ‘Pamela, that ship has sailed,’ he replied brusquely, and turned tail.
Here, all that unresolved animosity is sweetened with more than a spoonful of sugar — the contents of an entire Tate & Lyle factory, more like.
Yes, Thompson plays Travers as an icy grande dame, at first as imperious and condescending as that other Mrs T in her pomp. But as with all fictional or fictionalised grandes dames from Lady Bracknell to the Dowager Countess of Grantham, snobbery is a great source of comedy.
Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith take full advantage, and so does Thompson, wincing beautifully when Dick Van Dyke, slated to play Bert the chimney sweep, is described as ‘one of the greats’.
‘Olivier is one of the greats,’ counters Travers, ‘Burton, Guinness . . .’ Slowly, however, she warms to Disney’s ideas and folksy charm. And it is this warming process that supplies the film’s most moving passages.
There is a lovely, tear-jerking scene in the rehearsal room in which Travers, having resisted the idea of any music at all, is swept up by the sheer joy of Let’s Go Fly A Kite (although not without pointing out that it should, grammatically, be Let’s Go And Fly A Kite).
He also proves as canny a psychologist as he is an impresario, gently suggesting that he has been enduringly influenced by a complex father just as she has. Recognising some kind of kinship, she duly signs over the rights. There is no sense that she might go through the rest of her long life bitterly regretting having done so, although that is what really happened.
No matter. Saving Mr Banks might not be entirely accurate, but it is wholly engaging.
Thompson is marvellous, as is Hanks, and the lesser roles are beautifully cast, too. B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are splendid as the Shermans, and Bradley Whitford nicely nonplussed as the Mary Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi.
And although the cheerful Disney driver assigned to Travers is there mainly as a device, her froideur gradually melting on the back seat of his limo, the excellent Paul Giamatti makes him sweetly believable.
The riskiest element of the film is the use of repeated flashbacks to Travers’s rural Australian childhood to explain how her stories originated, but Hancock handles this deftly.
We don’t learn how a Queensland country girl grew up to become such an ineffably superior Englishwoman, but we do learn that she was born Helen Goff, and that Travers was the first name of her loving and indulgent but thoroughly feckless father (Colin Farrell).
Alcoholism killed him, but not before his wife’s sister (Rachel Griffiths) turned up to look after the children and, if possible, to rescue their father. Hence the film’s title.
It is shrewd old Uncle Walt, naturally, who realises that Travers was driven by the ghosts of her past, and that Mary Poppins arrives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane not to save Jane and Michael, but Mr Banks.
NOW WATCH THE TRAILER
Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook