P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was the pen name of Helen Lyndon Goff (1899-1996), the creator of the children’s classic series of Mary Poppins books. When his daughters were young, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) promised to turn their favorite book into a movie, since they were so enchanted by the British nanny with magical powers.
Little did he know that the effort to secure the film rights would drag on for 20 years due to the uncompromising author’s inflexibility and insistence that any adaptation remain faithful to the source material. The protracted courting process finally proved fruitful in 1961, when Walt wined and dined the reluctant writer at his Hollywood studio and made an elaborate sales pitch to turn the story into a musical.
He succeeded in wooing Travers with the assistance of the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting team (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), and the deferential chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), assigned to drive her around during her stay, would also play a pivotal role.
That productive two-week visit is revisited in Saving Mr. Banks, a dramatization directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side). The picture’s title is a reference to Mary Poppins’ employer George Banks, who was among the many characters Travers was trying to protect.
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson portray their roles in such a convincing fashion that a period piece about a contract negotiation actually proves entertaining. Hanks pours on the folksy charm impersonating the legendary Disney opposite the chameleon-like Travers who requires time to soften from being skeptical to enthusiastic about the proposed project.
Although Saving Mr. Banks waxes sentimental and ends on an upbeat note, a Mary Poppins sequel was not to be, despite the fact that the original won five Academy Awards. Travers and Disney had such a big falling out prior to the picture’s release that she wasn’t even invited to the premiere.
Furthermore, she was so enraged about her book’s mistreatment at the hands of the studio that she went to her grave refusing to turn over the rights for another adaptation, and even wrote that refusal into her will. However, the truth does not get in the way of a syrupy movie with a stock, “happily ever after” ending.
To paraphrase Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps revisionist history go down in a most delightful way.”
Excellent (***½) Rated PG-13 for mature themes and unsettling images. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.