Mary Poppins is a decidedly odd children's film. You may remember the bubbly songs, Julie Andrews' relentless cheeriness and Dick Van Dyke's horrendous Cockney accent, but do you remember how long it is? (139 minutes!) Or, how disturbingly dysfunctional the Banks family appears? And how old Mr. and Mrs. Banks appeared to be (the actors were in their 40s)? Saving Mr. Banks is both a celebration and an explication of the film's dark magic.
But it is most decidedly the Disney version.
Crusty, cash-strapped Pamela "P.L." Travers (Emma Thompson) is on her uppers and finally succumbs to 20 years of badgering from Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to allow her most famous literary creation to be adapted by his studio. She arrives, grim in her fusty brown clothes, her hair tightly curled, and lays down the law to the affable Disney: "No chirping and prancing" and, definitely, "no animation."
Walt (first names are mandatory at the studio) applies his industrial-strength charm to the project, into which he has already invested a great deal of time and money. He hopes that his screenwriter, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and crack songwriting team, the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), can wheedle her into signing over the rights. Insisting that every meeting be tape-recorded (stay for the end titles to hear an excerpt), her emphatic "no, no, no"s seem to doom the enterprise.
What is her problem? The answer emerges through flashbacks of her difficult Australian childhood, haunted by her adored alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and overburdened mother (Ruth Wilson).
Tom Hanks, America's most beloved movie star, plays Walt Disney with an avuncular twinkle. There is scant complexity to his personality, nor is the conflict between the Sherman brothers (who wrote more movie scores than any other songwriters) even hinted at; they loathed each other even as they continued to compose their blockbuster Disney hits.
P.L. Travers was more than a cranky middle-aged lady. She was an actress, a writer and teacher who worked for the British Ministry of Information in New York City during World War II, was passionately interested in world mythology and was a mystic who studied with George Gurdjieff. She never married, but adopted a son when she was 40.
The cinematic clash between Walt and "Pam" is the friction between someone who idolizes childhood and someone who was traumatized by it. Is it possible to spread happiness if you yourself are unhappy? The film implies that everyone needs a Mary Poppins, but when she comes, do you welcome her or slam the door in her face?
This article appeared in print with the headline "American legends."