Saving Mr. Banks: When Movies Lie and Make You Cry

Tom Hanks is Walt Disney, and Emma Thompson author P.L. Travers, in this soapy but potent fiction about the making of the 'Mary Poppins' movie

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François Duhamel / Disney

Walt Disney and P.L. Travers didn’t get along. She fought his attempts to make a film musical of her Mary Poppins books, and he didn’t invite her to the 1964 Hollywood premiere; she flew in from London on her own to see the movie — and hated it. The picture earned hundreds of millions of dollars and eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Julie Andrews) and Best Song and Score by Robert and Richard Sherman. But Travers felt so scarred by the Disney experience that she refused to sanction any Poppins movie sequels. When producer Cameron Mackintosh proposed a stage musical version of the film that had made her fortune, Travers insisted that the Sherman brothers, still active, not be involved in writing new songs.

The collision of the imperious British bisexual and the master manipulator from Kansas City could make for a sour-spirited exposé, like Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. We might be treated to the volcanic struggle between an artist and his powerful patron — say, Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo and Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy. But the sponsor of Saving Mr. Banks, which stars Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney, is the Walt Disney Company, which has positioned the movie to be a Christmas heartwarmer and a feature-length corporate self-tribute.

(MORE: Richard Zoglin on the Stage Musical of Mary Poppins)

Whatever the character ambiguities in the original script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith (once included in the Blacklist of best unproduced screenplays), you can guess that Disney put it through the same severe vetting process that Travers applied to Walt’s Mary Poppins adaptation. Banks director John Lee Hancock’ last movie was The Blind Side, another reality-adjacent fable of a strong personality (Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Anne Tuohy) overwhelming a stubborn one (Quinton Aaron’s teen football prospect Michael Oher). Hancock applies his Blind Side strategy of Valentine vampirism — he goes for both the heart and the throat — to Banks, assuring from the start that Mrs. T. doesn’t stand a chance.

I can hear Walt, from his cryogenic crypt, protesting, “It’s a movie, for Pete’s sake!” And the standard biopic, certainly this one, is, at its best, a simplified form of biography. Far less than best, Saving Mr. Banks can be accused of whitewashing Walt even as he brainwashes Travers — and of submitting its audience to the same emotional pressure. But the picture finally succeeds as the kind of fantasy that its two main characters consorted in, individually and, on one project, together.

(WATCH: Emma Thompson Talks About the Dark Sides of P.L. Travers and Walt Disney)

The veddy English Travers, born Helen Goff in Australia, took her pen name from her father Travers Goff, an Irish banker in the Outback. This is the setting for the movie’s parallel story, set in 1906 and interwoven with the scenes in 1961 London and Burbank. The flashbacks, which are bathed in Nativity lighting and consume about 40 minutes of the two-hour film, paint Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) as a convivial gent with big dreams who is driven to poverty and early death by his love of liquor.

One sees this doting father and thinks of Johnny Nolan, the singing waiter played by James Dunn in Elia Kazan’s 1945 film of the Betty Smith memoir-novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And like Johnny’s daughter Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), the girl Helen must come to realize that the man she adores is an alcoholic failure with doom as his destiny. Francie-Smith would overcome her loss by growing up to write a book about her family; Helen-Travers would transform her father into the harried, sympathetic Mr. Banks, and her take-charge aunt (Rachel Griffiths) into Mary Poppins, the practical sorceress who becomes the Banks children’s nanny.

(MORE: Our 1934 Review of the First Mary Poppins Book by Subscribing to TIME)

Walt Disney, whose father Elias sent the boy into the cold with tattered shoes and strapped him when he returned home, came to Hollywood and promoted a nostalgic fantasy of America in his movies and his theme parks. His link to Travers: neither of these two creators could abide what was. In genius fits of DIY psychiatry, they bent their harsh memories into the airiest artistic illusions. One wrote, the other built, dreams of what should have been. That’s why their works are still popular, 79 years since the publication of the first Poppins book, and nearly a half-century after Walt Disney’s death.

If there were a P.L. Travers Studio to produce Saving Mr. Banks, we might have a different perspective. Hanks, asked what Travers’ opinion of the film about her might be, replied, “She would absolutely hate it!” But this movie is, to cite Richard Schickel’s shrewd 1968 book, The Disney Version. Indeed, the Disney Theme Park version — a scenic ride, with a few curves and dips, that seamlessly blends sentiment and Walt’s anachronistic world view. Travers’ slightly more acerbic take on life, in her Poppins books, is the eye-drop of medicine in Walt’s canister full of sugar.

(MORE: The TIME Review of Richard Schickel’s 1968 Book The Disney Version)

From the start, Travers and Walt are classic don’t-invite-’ems. She insists on being addressed as “Mrs. Travers;” he invariably calls her Pamela or Pam. He wants to be “Walt;” she says, “Mr. Disney.” Potato, potahto — and she’s all starch. Loading the case against Travers, the movie presents her as the standard frigid woman in need of thawing. Stern of mien, popping her plosives like grenades, her lips welded into a grimace of disapproval, she growls at the parents of young children and complains about the balmy Los Angeles sunshine. (Thompson’s portrayals are usually heartier and more delicate than this cartoon of pruny wrath.) Travers could be an ancestor of Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine: the haughty foreigner who comes to California and collides with its laid-back manners.

As depicted here, the Disney studio in Burbank might be the Shire, and its employees all those hobbits who never left home. Travers’ closest collaborators on the project — screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) — are unfailingly cheerful and polite to the crabby Mrs. T.; they rarely sink into despair, though she often pushes them in that direction, and never rise to fury. Walt’s secretary Tommie (Kathy Baker) has the sunny spunk of a ’30s movie working-girl like Glenda Farrell or Una Merkel. Tommie protects her boss when someone wants to barge into his office while he’s sneaking a cigarette, and keeps steering him toward his best instincts.

(MORE: TIME’s 1964 Review of Disney’s Mary Poppins Movie)

The strangest Disney denizen is Travers’ driver Ralph, played by Paul Giamatti. Like the movie’s Travers and Walt, Ralph harbors a secret pain, a disabled daughter, whose struggles give him strength. Described by producer Ian Collie as an amalgam of several Disney drivers, Ralph is really a fiction of the film’s writers. Says Giamatti, “They needed a relaxed, kind human being, which is exactly what Ralph is.” He is more: a beatific Buddha who deflects Travers’ cynicism with satori, her wrath with a wreath of smiles. Imagine the polar opposite of the pure-evil slave-vendor whom Giamatti incarnates in 12 Years a Slave, and you have the angelic, ethereal, possibly sedated Ralph, who could exist nowhere other than in a Disney film.

The plot’s dialectic, like everything else in the film, gets spelled out in the dialogue. “Mary Poppins and the Bankses,” Travers says, “they’re family to me.” Not like family; family. Actual relatives — her father and aunt. Walt is just as determined. “I love Mary Poppins.” he dewily tells the author. “And you, you’ve got to share her with me.” The movie essentially describes a custody battle over the nanny; and before seeing the movie, we know who wins. Mrs. Travers will say yes, either by being converted or through grudging acquiescence.

(MORE: The Entrepreneurial Genius of Walt Disney)

The miscreant Mrs. T. takes a while to see the light. Finding a fruit basket and dozens of Disney plush toys in her Beverly Hills Hotel room, she loads the playthings in a closet and shies the fruit out her window toward the pool — a preposterously heedless gesture for the character, but one referenced in the fruit lying around Helen’s Outback home. The toys will return too: Travers, having flown back in anger to London, sits alone in her flat, her only companion a four-foot-high Mickey Mouse plush toy that she brought home with her. (Come! On!)

As in tatty B-movies about rock ‘n roll, from the ’50s through both versions of Footloose, the moment must arrive when the puritanical adults start tapping their feet at the music the kids love. For Travers in the movie it’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” the climactic number that liberates Mr. Banks from his propriety and servitude — and is meant to prove to Travers that the Shermans understand the autobiographical touchstone of her books. Okay, we accept that connection. But Travers must also be ground down to accept every aspect of the Disney theocracy: at the Hollywood premiere, she enters the theater on the arm of a Mickey figure as large as she. We are reminded of Harvey Kurtzman’s 1954 Mad comic-book parody, “Mickey Rodent,” in which “Darnold Duck” sputters that “Somehow … the idea of a mouse … 10 times bigger than the biggest rat … this idea has always made me sick!”

(MORE: Corliss’s Tribute to Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad)

The film argues that this defeat of Travers’ will (which never happened) was a triumph of Walt’s charm. Audiences not only know she sold Disney the rights to her first novel, they want to see her agree to do it; otherwise the world would have been deprived of a movie it loved and loves. Yet Hancock, Hanks and Thompson hint at a subtler shade: that Travers, a follower of the spiritualist George Gurdjieff (in the movie she is seen holding one of his books), was virtually mesmerized by the swami Walt. In the scene of Walt telling Travers that she must “share” Mary Poppins with him, Thompson actually flinches, as if she’s ever so briefly enchanted by his hypnotic charm, and must exert herself to snap out of it. A supreme salesman, shaman or Svengali, Walt will get what he wants.

And Saving Mr. Banks will, by hook or by crook — actually, by crook — sell the hokum of its script to many a skeptic in the crowd. Me, for example. Watching the movie twice, and recoiling at every encounter of irresistible force and immovable object, I finally gave in, around the time Walt confides in Mrs. T. the memory of his rough childhood. (Or invents it. Who can say?) The critic in me acknowledges that Hanks brings an actor’s art to this anecdote, the gentility of his manner colliding with and enriching the story’s poignancy. The eight-year-old girl in me suppressed tears, then let ’em flow, even as I condemned both the movie for its ability to tap plangent emotions through trash art and my suggestible self for falling for it. I fought the feeling like a waterboard victim, surrendering when the torturers found my weakness: creamy nostalgia, deftly applied.

(MORE: Tom Hanks on TIME’s List of Top 10 Movie Performances for 2013)

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” said Noël Coward in Private Lives. He meant the best 1920s pop songs — the whole grand, silly symphony. Bad popular art can be potent too, in spurts. Saving Mr. Banks tries to turn a lie about securing a book’s film rights into a parable about St. Walt and the Dragon Lady. I hereby denounce the movie and all its works (except for Hanks). But for a few moments there, I was like the movie’s P.L. Travers, helpless under the Disney spell.