I watched Mary Poppins a handful of times as a child but it was never one of my favourite Disney films. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it didn’t appeal – there was an underlying sadness to the story that was a bit too obvious for my liking. And also, Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent was pretty horrendous…
So I was intrigued to see earlier this autumn that the very same Disney who had brought Ms Poppins to life back in 1964 was now examining the back-story to the film and, more specifically, the life of the story’s creator, Pamela Travers.
P.L. Travers was famously protective of her character; Walt Disney was desperate to give Mary Poppins the Disney treatment after promising to do so to his daughter, but Ms Travers was not keen. She put off Disney’s offer to give the story a movie makeover for years, finally conceding after listening to the advice of her lawyer, who told her that financially, she could no longer refuse. Saving Mr Banks examines the relationship between Pamela and Walt, Pamela and her leading lady Mary and – most poignantly – Pamela and her father.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, the film was fascinating, if a little drawn out. Pamela’s childhood in Australia – shaking off the English upbringing that she appeared to have had – was blighted by the tragic fate of her father, with whom she was besotted. Colin Farrell plays Travers Goff (Pamela’s father; she adopted his first name as her last name at a later point in her life) with aplomb, a dandy who is overly constricted by society and turns to the bottle for comfort.
Meanwhile, in the present (-ish) day, Pamela and Walt Disney are engaging in a tete a tete regarding the movie adaptation of the book. Pamela has been flown out to LA and is instantly critical (‘it smells of chlorine’); when she arrives at her hotel to find her room crammed with welcoming Disney memorabilia, she shoves it all in a cupboard (apart from the pears. They go in the swimming pool…).
As the early-stage development of the film – and the attempts to get Pamela to sign away the rights – stutter along, Pamela becomes increasingly reminded of her childhood. A spinster great-aunt came to her family’s rescue in Australia, but the real meaning behind Mary Poppins remains untouched upon until Walt Disney himself has a moment of realisation.
The film is brilliant. As well as being hugely enjoyable, it left me with a multitude of questions that resulted in a casual Google sess when I got home. Tom Hanks was charisma defined as the twinkly-eyed Disney, whilst Emma Thompson captured the vulnerability and brittleness of Pamela Travers perfectly. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman were inspiring as the ivory-tinkling Sherman brothers, who wrote the hits that the film became famous for: think Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar and Let’s Go and Flight a Kite.
Dare I say it, I enjoyed this insight into the story behind the story more than I ever did the original movie – it’s as magical as Ms P’s famous handbag.
In cinemas now