Until quite recently I had thought that the story of Mary Poppins had sprung complete from the fevered imaginations of Walt Disney and his staff. Then I discovered that it was based on a book, a series of books in fact, by Australian-British novelist P. L. Travers. I immediately wondered why only one film had been made and resolved to read the books and see how they compare. I still haven’t got around to reading the books but “Saving Mr Banks” goes some way to answering some of my questions. That isn’t to say that this is some kind of dry documentary about the history of the story but rather is a charming and often comedic look at a battle of wills between to very different but equally difficult personalities.
First thing first, this is a film about making the film of Mary Poppins, there is very little if anything about the writing of the books in this story. I didn’t realise this at first and it took me a while to get used to the idea that we weren’t going to see any of that creative process. I would have liked to see more about the actual writing of the book. We get to see some of the influences from her childhood that are recognisable from the Disney film and presumably therefore are in the books too. Of course this is also a Disney film too and seems to lean towards the Disney point of view of this story so there might not be any correlation there.
The film jumps between Travers’s childhood in 1900s Australia and her trip from England to the US to discuss making the movie in the early 1960s, some 20 years after she wrote the original Mary Poppins book. Disney has already been after the rights for many years at this point and Travers has always said no but financial difficulties force her to consider the idea.
The fact that this is a Disney film about Disney making a film out of Mary Poppins makes the story feel a little one sided. Travers puts up a fight throughout, objecting to ideas, songs and especially animated sequences that anyone who has seen Mary Poppins knows make it into the film so it feels a little anticlimactic since you already know the outcome. It’s like a crime thriller that lays out the details of the crime and who did it from the very beginning; a bold move but you have to make a really good detective story to make it work. This film kind of manages to pull off that trick, even though you know her objections are ultimately doomed, it is still good to watch Travers defending her characters and stories against what she sees as unacceptable meddling. It is sometimes funny, sometimes heart warming and often heart breaking to watch her slowly lose this battle.
As the story in the US progresses, Travers seems to begin to like and appreciate the talents of the people she is working with although I don’t think that she ever comes to like Disney himself. I think that if they were working on a different film together she would have really enjoyed herself. However, I have since read that she so disliked the musical aspect of the Mary Poppins movie that she forbade the Sherman Brothers, who were responsible for the songs and music in Mary Poppins, from working on a stage musical version of the story. So I don’t know whether this growing fondness and camaraderie is just artistic licence.
Given that P. L. Travers has always maintained that she hated the Disney film of Mary Poppins, I don’t think that this film really gives enough idea of why she finally gave in and let them make it. It does however give some insights into the characters in the story and the meaning behind it that have only increased my desire to read the originals.