Walt Disney and the Real Mary Poppins
By Skip Sheffield
Who ever knew the sunny, upbeat musical “Mary Poppins” had such dark, painful origins?
Walt Disney knew, and so do his successors. “Saving Mr. Banks” is the entertaining, educational and yes, uplifting tale of Disney’s struggles to convince author P.L. Travers to allow a screen adaptation of her precious work, “Mary Poppins.”
A lesser man than Walt Disney would have said “forget it” after 20 years of fruitless negotiations. But Disney was a determined man who harbored buried troubles of his own, and he was just as stubborn as the reclusive author.
It’s been a banner year for Tom Hanks, who shone as the valiant “Captain Phillips” and now convincingly fills the shoes of the legendary animator and entrepreneur Walt Disney.
Tom Hanks looks nothing like the seemingly genial founder of Disneyland. Hanks did grow a mustache and cut and slicked his hair in 1950s fashion, but his focus is more on the indomitable inner spirit of Disney, who promised his daughters he would develop a movie version of their favorite book, “Mary Poppins,” by P.L. Travers if it was the last thing he ever did.
Prickly P.L. Travers, who was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia, is played by brilliant British actress Emma Thompson.
The film, directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), is set in 1961 with regular flashbacks to Travers’ Australian Outback childhood. It was not an easy childhood. Her father, Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), was an alcoholic dreamer and failed banker. Nevertheless little Helen loved her father unconditionally. She honored him with her pen name, and he would turn up in unexpected ways in “Mary Poppins,” which was her only commercial success.
“Mary Poppins” is in essence a tribute to P.L. Travers’ luckless, ill-fated father. This film, adapted for the screen by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, explains why Travers was so protective of her fictitious governess. Emma Thompson, who will likely be nominated for an Oscar, brings out the character’s stubborn pride and contrary nature without making us hate her.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is leavened with much humor by an ace supporting cast that includes Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers’ Los Angeles chauffeur; Bradley Whitford as Don Da Gradi, co-writer of the 1964 film; B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as composers and lyricists of the score; Kathy Baker as a trusted Disney studio executive and Melanie Paxon as Disney’s loyal secretary, Dolly.
This film may sanitize and whitewash grittier parts of the real story but in the tradition of Disney family entertainment it is a light, loving tribute to Uncle Walt and his most challenging film project.