A Spoonful of Sugar at the Movies

Warning: the following post contains spoilers from the film Saving Mr. Banks.

Mary Poppins is a classic. Saying anything less would be an understatement. It’s perhaps the best movie Walt Disney ever made, which is saying something because Disney won twenty-two competitive Academy Awards in his career, more than any other individual in history, but Mary Poppins was his only win in the Best Picture category. First released in 1964, it still holds up as a film masterpiece, with a charming cast headlined by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and David Tomlinson, and complimented by Disney animation that set the standard for the industry. It’s no wonder that the film currently maintains a 98% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is 14 points higher than The Sound of Music‘s current rating. Naturally, a movie about the making of Mary Poppins would be able to draw an audience purely on nostalgia, but with Saving Mr. Banks we now have another film that will one day be considered a classic to enjoy.

Wikipedia tells me that Tom Hanks was the first choice for the role of Walt Disney, but Emma Thompson was merely the backup plan to play P.L. Travers after the studio was unable to land Meryl Streep. It says a lot about he caliber of production you’re dealing with that they can settle for a two time Academy Award winner (and five time nominee) because a three time Academy Award winner (and 17 time nominee) is unavailable. The Free Encyclopedia also indicates that this is Hanks is the first actor to portray Disney in a mainstream film. Facts aside, Hanks and Thompson are both worthy once again of Oscar consideration for this one, although Hanks already has some serious competition in himself in Captain Phillips. Hanks is spot-on as Walt Disney, and elements of Mary Poppins are apparent in Thompson’s mannerisms as the author who created the character. The film also contains strong performances from Paul Giamatti, who plays Mrs. Travers’ chauffeur, The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford as co-screenwriter Don DaGradi, and the duo of Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman. In flashbacks, Travers’ parents are played by Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson, who is perhaps most famous for playing a crazy murderer lady on BBC’s Luther.

The reason this is a movie is because Mrs. Travers was reluctant to see her books made into a movie to say the least. Disney tried for twenty years, after his daughters fell in love with the books, to get the movie rights, but Travers wanted to make sure it was done right. Disney knew how she felt. He was once a struggling artist who didn’t want to sign the cartoon mouse he drew away to some New York producer. He also knew that Mary Poppins had the chance to be a film for the ages. Travers wanted no animation, no singing, no dancing, no Dick Van Dyke, and no hint of romance between Bert and Mary, but Walt Disney happened to know a thing or two about what makes a good movie. The breaking point for Travers was that the Disney production team was making Mr. Banks too mean. They needed to find a way to have him redeem himself in the end, something Travers had struggled with since childhood as she saw her own beloved father, also a manager at a bank, fall to alcoholism and illness. It was Disney, who had a loving but complicated relationship with his father as well, who realized that Mary Poppins wasn’t really there to take care of the children, but to make Mr. Banks a better father.

I would have to do a little more research to know how factually accurate the film was, but it certainly got the job done in every other way to measure a movie’s greatness. It combined fresh acting performances from familiar faces with fifty years worth of nostalgia. It brilliantly identifies the parallels between the motifs of the 1964 film and the lives of its creators. I’d recommend Saving Mr. Banks to anyone, especially those who love Mary Poppins or are interested in the backstage side of Hollywood.

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