Saving Mr. Banks received nomination for Best Original Score.
In 1961, P. L. Travers, the acclaimed author and creator of Mary Poppins, spent two weeks at the Disney studios in Burbank. Walt Disney had courted her for twenty years for the rights to make the Mary Poppins film. Travers had consistently said no. She came to Burbank as a last-ditch effort to put this project to rest, either by making it or destroying any hope of its existence.
Emma Thompson plays P. L. Travers to Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney. Hanks’ Disney is warm and welcoming. He insists on being called “Walt,” not “Mr. Disney.” Thompson’s Travers is cold and critical. She will not allow anyone to call her “Pam” or “Pamela.” They must call her “Ms. Travers.” Travers, herself, was a bit of a shock to screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak).
The film does an amazing job of recreating what it was like to work with Travers and the mostly unknown difficulties the filmmakers had. Many of the conversations held in the studio were taken directly from over thirty-nine hours, which by the way, you should stay through the first set of credits, where the original recordings are shared. This provides a glimpse into how cold and difficult Travers was, but also how well Emma Thompson portrayed the author.
Despite what the trailers communicated, you quickly figure out that this film is about so much more than the making of Mary Poppins. More than once, Mrs. Travers tells Disney and his team that the Banks’ are like family to her. The flashbacks to her own childhood suggest that the Banks family is really her own family. Colin Farrell plays the father, Travers Robert Goff, and he’s good at it. Farrell’s Goff is a loving, playful father who loves being around his children. Unfortunately, he does not love to be at the office so much. He struggles with his own dark side, all while seeking the bottom of a bottle.
Travers’ Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) comes to save the family when Goff gets sick. From the moment she appears on the screen, you know that Travers based Poppins on her aunt. Aunt Ellie gets to work on empowering the family to clean the house and to get things in order. The only thing that Aunt Ellie is not able to fix is Goff. Travers was extremely close to her father. She had left to go get him pears and when she came back, he had died.
The death of her father would shape Travers. The life she as aspired to as a child no longer seemed possible. The carefree, imaginative world of her father only led to death. As she worked with the Disney team on the film, these memories come flooding back to her. In one heartfelt scene, Travers goes outside the studio, sits in the lawn, and begins to construct a small house out of sticks and leaves. Her driver for the week, the only fictional character in the film played by Paul Giamatti, comes over and helps her. Here in the lawn, these two adults recall and reclaim childhood.
Travers finds it hard to break free from the past. While Walt Disney and Travers are at odds on so many things, this they have in common. Disney can relate to having a less than perfect relationship with his father. Our pasts can haunt us, but they do not have to control us. Travers, through the two-week film making process, claims her past as part of her story. And it is her story to tell.
It is in relating his father to Mr. Banks, that Disney realizes that Mary Poppins comes to the Banks family not for the children, but for the father. It is figures like Poppins, Aunt Ellie, and Walt Disney to help point us in the direction of reconciliation with our past. We too can wrestle with our past, claim that part of us, and tell our stories.
There is a lot of Oscar buzz around this film. Tom Hanks will undoubtably get a nod, but my money is on Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers. The film is really her story and Thompson frustrates us, makes us a laugh, as well as makes us cry. I also think Colin Farrell should get a shout-out as supporting actor.