Set in 1961 at the Disney Studios in California where the “Mary Poppins” film is being written, and in 1900s Australia, “Saving Mr. Banks” stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, and Emma Thompson as Pamela Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books that the Disney film is based on.
Travers’ stubbornness is treated with humor that paints her as ridiculous but likeable.
Despite their shared fondness for Mary Poppins, Disney and Travers’ personalities and visions clash, setting up the tension for the movie. Disney is a gregarious business man, and Travers is a stuffy marm who is afraid that Disney will cheapen her writing and make a fool of her. Disney is determined to see through his 20-year courtship of the movie rights, though, and he puts all his charm to bear on Mrs. Travers, whom he insists on calling Pam.
There are familiar themes of longing and struggle in “Saving Mr. Banks” that are common to Disney movies, but there is no quintessential bad guy; Travers’ stubbornness is treated with humor that paints her as ridiculous but likeable.
The movie alternates between scenes with the film-making team at Disney, and Travers’ childhood in Australia where we see her family story unfold. Her exploration of those memories provides the emotional background for Travers’ attachment to the Mary Poppins story and its characters.
While Travers wants to keep Mary Poppins close and precious, Disney wants to celebrate and even recreate the joy that Mary Poppins brought to the Banks family.
The conflict with Disney and the more frequent trips down memory lane start to take a toll on Travers, and she becomes increasingly distracted. As that happens, her guard lets down, and she starts to have fun during the working sessions, especially their work on the movie tunes that she had objected to initially. She won’t budge on some movie elements though, and refuses to sign the rights over to Disney.
Their disagreements essentially hinge not on style but on the treatment of Mary Poppins herself and what she represents for the Banks family in the books. While Travers wants to keep Mary Poppins close and precious, Disney wants to celebrate and even recreate the joy that Mary Poppins brought to the Banks family.
I’m not giving anything away when I say that Disney and Travers eventually come to an agreement and make the “Mary Poppins” movie. What’s compelling about “Saving Mr. Banks” is their reckoning with the fact that the Mary Poppins stories were already out of their hands, and in the hands of loving readers the world over.
I laughed and (almost) cried, and I sang the songs for days after watching. It’s a charming movie.