Tom Hanks is so universally appealing that he was a logical choice to play Walt Disney. Who doesn’t like the magic he has brought to American culture?
Well, P.L. Travers, for one. She thinks that Mr. Disney’s cartoon characters are ridiculous, his movies are nothing but schmaltzy pieces of fluff, and his theme park is nothing but a money-making standing carnival. And she isn’t afraid to tell Mr. Disney so herself, along with insisting that he, along with everyone else, refer to her as “Mrs. Travers” and not by her first name.
Emma Thompson has to play this prickly role just right: she can’t just be a growly curmudgeon, that’s easy; the hard part is getting the viewers to like her and to empathize with her character despite the constant invective spewing from her strict-schoolmarm persona. Somehow we can take all of her constant caustic carping because we get to see her as a child, full of wonder and imagination and adoring her fun-loving father, Bob (Colin Farrell). “Ginty” (Annie Buckley) was Bob’s playful name for his oldest girl, the one who loved to hop on his back and skip through the fields, or maybe ride their little farm’s only horse, the white nag that dad called “his gallant steed.”
Yes, Bob was wonderful with the children, a joyous fun-loving Irishman who loved telling tall tales, but also loved his Irish whiskey, and as the flask become more and more frequent, so Bob struggled more and more with a boring bank job that was slowly killing his soul. He died young, leaving behind a distraught widow, Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and three young children, the oldest of whom would never quite recover. And so she sublimated her grief into her writing, coming up with the book “Mary Poppins,” about a magical nanny who comes to work for a crusty banker’s family.
The book sold marvelously, but now, years later, Mrs. Travers’ agent tells her that her royalties are drying up and she needs to seriously consider this deal for the movie rights with the crass American, Mr. Disney. So Mrs. Travers reluctantly travels to Los Angeles where she refuses to sign over the rights unless she has editorial control over the production. They are all aghast, but Mr. Disney had made a promise to his own children to bring Mary Poppins to the screen, and he allows this unhappy-with-everything-and-everybody harpy to dictate not just the script writers, but even the songwriters, the award-winning Sherman Brothers.
Well, we all know that it turned out happily, despite the difficulties. Some brilliant casting person found Julie Andrews, who was so perfect for her role that she won an Academy Award for it (now almost never awarded for a musical). Movie-goers even overcame Dick Van Dyke’s bad accent to lift the film to a popularity that would puzzle most audiences today, but at the time it was a smashing success.
“Saving Mr. Banks” (the name of the banker in the book) is not just about the wrangle between Mrs. Travers and Mr. Disney – about how the writer’s concept was going to be brought to life by a screenplay – it’s also about Mrs. Travers’ struggle with her own childhood memories, especially involving her fun-loving, but flawed, father. Mr. Disney correctly perceives, finally, that some of Mrs. Travers’ demanding haughtiness results from her determination to honor the memory of a father who ultimately disappointed her and the rest of her family, a situation mired in ambivalence. Ah, but what Disney could do so well is rise above the frustratingly ambiguous fray and create some pure joy and energy, appealing to the child in all of us. And in the most touching moment of the film, we learn that he, too, is dealing with his childhood when he does this, because he had to work so hard at a family paper route as a boy that he didn’t have much time for fun and games. Well, now he does. And his lasting contribution is helping the rest of us find that happy, playful child within. What a marvelous legacy that is!
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.