3 Stars — Powerful
Mary Poppins is one of the most recognized names in 20th-century literary and in film history. Released by Disney Studios in 1964, this iconic story today is not only celebrating its 50th anniversary as a classic American film, but it is also still one of the biggest shows on Broadway. Although we know and love the characters and songs from Mary Poppins, most people know little of the struggle Walt Disney went through to get this children's book onto film.
Saving Mr. Banks is a charming look at the give-and-take battle that went on between Mr. Disney and Mrs. P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. Pamela Lyndon Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff, Aug. 9, 1899-April 23, 1996), was a British novelist who was raised in Australia. She was the daughter of an alcoholic bank manager named Travers Robert Goff, whom she greatly admired and about whom she often wrote.
In 1924, she immigrated to England, where she wrote under the pen name P.L. Travers, adapted from her father's first name. Although she never married, she would introduce herself as Mrs. Travers. In 1933, she began writing her series of children's novels about the mystical and magical English nanny Mary Poppins.
Although Travers lived in the United States during World War II and later lived among the Hopi and Navaho Indian Tribes to study their mystical rites, she firmly held onto her British roots and did not have a great love for American culture. She had been approached by the Disney family in the 1940s and '50s about the possibility of turning her novel into a film, but she resisted, believing that the hucksters of Hollywood would trivialize her work.
Saving Mr. Banks gives us a semi-fictional look at the charm Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) put on to coax Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) to unlock her treasure and release the story in a movie version. Ultimately, it may have been her dire financial straits that led her to relent to Disney's invitation.
Saving Mr. Banks gives us a glimpse into the struggles with which Travers grappled in releasing her beloved story, including the complicated relationship she had with her father and mother. Like many children of alcoholic parents, Travers sought to save her father from himself. It is not lost on Mr. Disney that the redeeming of Mr. Banks, the father in the story of Mary Poppins, bears a strong resemblance to her own beloved father, whom she could not save.
The humorous telling of this story portrays Travers as a strong-willed woman who does not give an inch to any man who attempts to stand in her way. Even so, beneath this gruff exterior is a little girl still grieving the loss of her father, who died at age 43 while she was still an impressionable young woman. She believed that the Disney team would attempt to ruin her beloved character, and among other things, she demanded that there be "no animation" in the film.
When she discovered that there would be animated dancing penguins in a scene with Dick Van Dyke, she was furious. Years later she only relented to have Mary Poppins turned into a Broadway musical after stipulating that "none of those Hollywood boys, or songwriters, could touch the production."
What gives Saving Mr. Banks its depth and charm is the way it lets us look into the life, the pain and the heart of the young Helen Goff. So much of the story of Mary Poppins is the retelling of her own life, but in a way that allows it to be the life she had always hoped it to be. One can only wonder how strongly we would hold onto a biographical story of our own hopes and dreams, our own desires to be held in the arms of a loving father. Like an iceberg where 90 percent of what is there is beneath the surface, our life's story that we tell in all of our daily actions is mostly not seen by the people with whom we come in contact.
Saving Mr. Banks is a good reminder that we all have much to reveal and redeem.
» As you look back on your own family, what part did you play within that family story? Was there anyone you were trying to save? What happened when you tried?
» The magical tale of Mary Poppins was perfect for Disney's imaginaries. Why do you think Mrs. Travers was so resistant?
» The fact that we all share similar joys and fears is what makes great literature and great films speak to us. With whom do you most identify in this film?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.