“Saving Mr. Banks” But Throwing P.L. Travers Under the Bus

A movie about the making of Disney’s “Mary Poppins” is self-serving and self-congratulating besides untrue and unfair

Jerry Griswold

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When I asked P.L. Travers what she thought of the movie Disney made out of her book Mary Poppins, she replied, “As I walked out of the theater, I was crying.” While she felt Julie Andrews could have made a great version of her nanny if the Disney folks had allowed it, Travers was heartbroken that Walt had taken her novel and turned it into a cloying musical and saccharin fare.

Saving Mr. Banks presents the story of the making of that Disney classic, with Tom Hanks playing Walt and Emma Thompson playing Travers. And in the penultimate scene of this new film, Travers breaks into tears at the premiere of Disney’s Mary Poppins. But here is the difference: In “Saving Mr. Banks,” we are to understand that she is weeping because Travers is deeply happy with what the filmmakers have done with her story and because she has finally worked through psychological issues surrounding her late father.

This is how history is rewritten.

It’s not like the real cause for Travers’ tears wasn’t widely known. Indeed, in a Disney publication connected to the Broadway version of Mary Poppins, a comment by Travers is reprinted: “Tears ran down my cheek because it was all so distorted. . . . I was so shocked that I felt I would never write–let alone smile–again!” We must conclude, then, that the truth was unimportant to John Lee Hancock, the Director of Saving Mr. Banks, and to his employer. This is, after all, a film tied to the 50th anniversary of Disney’s Mary Poppins. If Travers’ criticism might spoil the party, a happy ending was called for. So, Travers’ sobbing disappointment was converted into a misty-eyed endorsement.

The truth be damned.

But does the truth ever matter in a biopic or does that omnibus phrase “based on a real story” give the filmmakers license, poetic or otherwise? Divorced from any need for factual correspondence, seen simply as a movie, Saving Mr. Banks is terrific and Tom Hanks’ genial performance and Emma Thompson’s arching eyebrows deserve separate Academy Awards. Seen…

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Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.