Faith & Film: Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of P.L. Travers, author of “Mary Poppins,” who travels to Hollywood in 1961 to meet with Walt Disney. Disney has been trying for 20 years to get Travers to give him the rights to make a movie of “Mary Poppins.” Travers is reluctant to give any permission to Disney. However, she is forced by her financial situation to enter into serious negotiations. Travers is very protective of her characters, saying that they are like family to her. We learn in this movie how serious Travers is about that comment.

The movie contains many flashbacks of Travers as a young girl growing up in Australia. Her father is a banker who continues to lose his job and have to relocate his family due to his alcoholism. If that wasn’t bad enough, Travers’ beloved father contracts tuberculosis. Travers bases the character of Mr. Banks, the banker-father in “Mary Poppins,” on her own father. At one point, in a meeting with the Sherman brothers in Hollywood, who wrote the score to “Mary Poppins,” Travers asks: “You don’t think Mary Poppins came to save the children, do you?” For Travers, Poppins is about the redemption of her father.

Emma Thompson is wonderful as P.L. Travers. She comes to Hollywood wanting total control over the material. She becomes a nightmare to work with, not wanting to give an inch. Tom Hanks is equally good as Walt Disney, who is confident he can win over Travers with his charm. It looks like he’s met his match in the prickly, non-budging Travers. In a small but pivotal part, the great actor Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, Travers’ driver, who is the only one who has any success cracking Travers’ shell.

We know the eventual outcome of these meetings, so it’s no surprise that Disney finally wins the day. He finally convinces Travers that he will treat Mr. Banks well in the movie. The negotiations between Travers and Walt, along with all the members of “Team Disney” are well done. A pivotal point in the negotiations occurs when the Sherman brothers sing the final song, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Travers likes the song, and the description of the final scene, so much that she even begins to dance!

Director John Lee Hancock maintains the right tone to keep “Saving Mr. Banks” from becoming overly sentimental. The mood of the film is actually darker than I expected from seeing its trailers. Much of the credit here goes to Thompson’s nuanced performance as Travers. Her investment in the material becomes understandable as we experience her difficult childhood through the flashbacks.

When young people asked me if I’d recommend the movie, I told them that it would make no sense to them if they hadn’t seen “Mary Poppins.” I knew that all of us Baby Boomers generation had seen it, but was surprised that younger adults and children were also quite familiar with it. Much of the enjoyment of “Saving Mr. Banks” is the behind-the-scenes story of how a beloved family classic came to be.

Early in the movie, Travers insists that her meetings with “Team Disney” be taped. A wonderful surprise is that we hear a portion of the original tapes with Travers and Disney played over the final credits, along with actual photos of Travers, Disney, and others portrayed in the film.

Reflecting on the movies I’ve seen over the holiday season, I think it’s appropriate that two very different movies, “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Nebraska,” deal with the redemption of fathers through the actions of their children. There’s hope for us all.

Tom Condon, OP