The Magic of "Saving Mr. Banks"

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Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney. Walt attempts to woo P. L. Travers(Emma Thompson), author of the classic children’s novel, Mary Poppins. Walt wants to make a film about the book’s character but the author is hesitant to release the rights.
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
December 31st, 2013

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The Magic of "Saving Mr. Banks"

Late December is almost synonymous with snowfall, holiday lights, big roast turkey dinners, and the equally traditional rush of movies into theaters worldwide. Production companies see a way to capitalize on the world's desire for camaraderie, and families see a way to spend an evening together enjoying a bit of joy and escapism. The problem that usually arises is that no single film pleases the whole family; the action flicks are too much for the younger set, and the teenagers aren't interested in the latest animated wonder. That said, the family-unifying, feel-good flick "Saving Mr. Banks" is likely to be remembered by entire families as a standout at the box office this year, and for good reason.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is a throwback film, but this time, it's not just a generation of grandparents who will be feeling warm and fuzzy. Sure, many people still remember seeing "Mary Poppins" when it was first released in 1964, but whether the audience learned the power of superfragilisticexpialidocious in the 1960s or as a wee tot in the last decade or so, anything that reminds them of that first magical moment when their favorite nanny floated in on a stiff London breeze is sure to tug at even the most tightly strung heartstrings. Watching this film and getting a chance to be reintroduced to a beloved character, this time from a whole host of new perspectives, is almost like being given the gift of discovering Mary Poppins all over again.

Perhaps the most indelible thing about the film is the passion everyone has, some for very different reasons, for the characters who inhabit the broad world created by P.L. Travers. Walt Disney tried for over twenty years to gain the film rights to "Mary Poppins," refusing to be put off by rejection after rejection from the author. Why? Simply because he had fallen so in love with the story that he couldn't imagine not giving it to the rest of the world to enjoy as well—after all, that's what Disney was all about: giving the world the gifts of joy and imagination.

On the other hand, Travers is so invested in the world she's creating that she is conflicted about releasing the project, let alone to a production company that she is sure will do nothing but destroy it. The audience soon sees an added level of emotional strife as well; Travers had a less-than-ideal childhood with a rough, often intoxicated father and a Mary Poppins of her own. These characters aren't just characters; they are memories, valued and cherished, and they're as much a part of Travers' life story as her actual family. It is an admirable trait to be as protective of one's family and history as Travers is, regardless of how perfect it may or may not have been.

The P.L. Travers depicted in "Saving Mr. Banks" is a woman who has little time for whimsy and is loath to sell her stories for money, a word she spits out with no small amount of disdain. It is easy for moviegoers to assume she is hardened by her past, made steely and unforgiving by a childhood that was less than idyllic, but the lesson here is different altogether; she is protective of a world she created and that she values more than a paycheck. Funnily enough, Disney himself had no easy time growing up, but it seems he has chosen the path of eternally searching for the silver lining in life and bestowing that gift upon others in turn.

Disney eventually persuades Travers to share Mary Poppins with a worldwide audience, though not without plenty of concessions. She gets to approve changes to her story, sitting in on sessions with the lyricists and balking when things get too silly or frivolous for her tastes. This is a tale of compromise in which the two sides fight to bring the story of Mary Poppins to life in the way each believes is best; Disney wants to imbue the film with dancing penguins and vivid splashes of color, while Travers vetoes the color red and balks at the musical interludes. It's an interesting interplay, and it's easy to relate to the need for compromise; few real-life stories have a simple black-and-white sense of right and wrong, and when ideas are blended, the outcome is often quite magical.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is a great movie and quite possibly one that will become a seasonal favorite as the years go by, but it is not necessarily the movie its trailer portrays. Yes, it has the charm of Disney and his parks, wonderful performances by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, and of course that universal Mary Poppins appeal that is a draw in and of itself. However, it is very likely that while audiences will see the movie because of the fanciful, fun-filled world the previews promise, they will fall in love with it and watch it again and again because of the film's heart and depth.