The woman behind Mary Poppins

Saving Mr Banks (PG)
Mary Poppins remains one of the most loved (and popular) Walt Disney films of all time. It was also one of the first to combine animation with real characters, not Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as many people believe.

Not much is known about P.L. Travers, the writer of the book on which the film was based, but that will all change with this film. Emma Thompson gives a resoundingly good performance as the children’s author. She plays her as a crusty literary snob who high-hats it over the team of writers (the Sherman brothers) Disney teams her up with to prepare the script for filming.

She takes particular umbrage to the idea of her book being put to music, regarding this as the ultimate in Tinseltown vulgarity. When Dick van Dyke – who appeared opposite Julie Andrews in the movie – is described as “one of the greats”, she huffs, “Dick Van Dyke? No. Maybe Olivier, Burton, Gielgud…”

The film isn’t only about ‘saving’ Mr Banks, the father in Mary Poppins, who was based on Travers’ own father, an unsuccessful bank manager. It’s also, in a sense, about the catharsis of Travers herself.

Her original name was Pamela Goff. She took the Travers from her aforementioned father whom she idolised. His name was Travers Goff. Part-Irish, he died of influenza in his forties.


He’s played here by Colin Farrell, who appears in a number of flashback sequences set in Australia and juxtaposed at intervals with the main action. These scenes focus on his free-spirited attitude to life, his close bond with his daughter (here called Ginty) and his substance abuse. Maybe Farrell drew on his own past as the ‘inspiration’ for the latter. He does a British accent rather than an Australian one for some reason but captures both the humour and pathos of his character with consummate charm.

Tom Hanks

I was less happy with the overworked Tom Hanks as Disney. The moustache and slicked-back hair are fine but his face and frame were too big and his general demeanour off-kilter. Disney had an appearance like Walter Pidgeon, nothing like Hanks. You can’t get over the feeling that you’re watching Hanks rather than Disney.

It would probably have been better to get an unknown actor for the role. Having a famous person of today play a famous person of yesteryear is always problematic.  (The problem doesn’t arise with Thompson as few people are aware what Travers looked like).

Walt Disney

I also feel the real Walt Disney was a much tougher customer than the cuddly character we’re presented with here. Not too many people know this, but the idea of making a film of Mary Poppins was originally put to him by our own Maureen O’Hara. He turned her down flatly because she made the major mistake of falling out with him a few years previously over billing on the movie The Parent Trap...and one didn’t do that to this man without consequences

Saving Mr Banks is enjoyable in a Capraesque kind of way but it meandered a bit too much for my liking. It could have done with having 20 minutes snipped off the last third.

After the dramatic finale of the Farrell segment, the premiere of Mary Poppins becomes something of a limp sideshow. (The real Travers hated the finished movie but that doesn’t come out here).

The film is at its best when it shows Thompson in ‘Iron Lady’ mode, scaring the daylights out of Disney and his cohorts with her officiousness and unreasonable demands. I was more affected by the way she herself thaws out than all the Mr Banks business which I found to be rather obtuse and over-wrought, despite its best intentions.

Or maybe even because of them.

Good **