Every new day is a chance to remake yourself and the world around you.
This utterly fascinating film tells the story of Walt Disney and author P. L. Travers negotiating over film rights for the latter’s Mary Poppins line of books. (The actual movie turned fifty this year and is in the National Film Registry.)
The movie consists of two or perhaps three stories being told at once (“Pamela” as a young girl, Ms. Travers as an older woman, and to some degree Mary Poppins in itself). All of these stories feel unified and important, leading toward a central purpose that’s more notable for the healing it places in the lives of Disney and Travers than for the famous production they both shared a hand in.
Things half in shadow
It’s not every day that two highly mismatched individuals find themselves collaborating on a work destined to become a classic, but nonetheless, Walt Disney’s namesake company has built an image for decades on providing families with happiness and laughter, both of which are conspicuously absent from the aging P. L. Travers’ life. After a brief, innocence-filled prologue, Pamela Travers is sulking in her apartment and is in dire financial straits. Her books aren’t bringing in more sales or royalties, and it doesn’t take long to show what’s really getting her down: she absolutely does not want Walt Disney touching her beloved Mary Poppins, even with his noteworthy proposition of letting her approve the script. That being stated, she does want to keep her house.
Before long, Travers finds herself heading to California, complaining about whether a baby will be a nuisance on the flight, and hoping the plane crashes. This comes between adorably sweet flashbacks of her childhood life, where her whimsy-loving father is showering affection upon his precious daughter. Despite being grounded in physical reality, this movie quickly proves one of the most magical that I’ve seen in years.
Upon her plane’s arrival, Pamela is visibly agitated, not at the plane ride but at everything that is coming afterward. Representatives from Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the Walt Disney Company greet her, none of whom she is particularly pleased to see. There is no magic in the grown and embittered Travers’ life, who much prefers to complain of the environment smelling like chlorine and sweat.
She immediately begins making herself at “home” in her hotel room, throwing pears from her complimentary fruit assortment into the swimming pool before shoving various Disney-mascot dolls into a closet (all except one, whom she puts up against the wall, facing it). This is only the start of her erratic behavior, which also comes to affect the film production, making her actions and beliefs as difficult to work with as they are personal and relevant.
And halfway in light
Travers is as courteous with her trip to Disney, both the company and the man, as with her hotel stay. After being introduced to scriptwriter Don DaGradi, she assigns him a “co-.” She then meets brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, who head up the music. (Robert is played by B.J. Novak, who was also in Inglourious Basterds. I knew he looked familiar!) Mary Poppins’ owner, however, does not think of her stories as a musical suited for careening through song and dance toward a happy ending.
Not to be overwhelmed at his own studio, Walt appears and lights up the room, with happy music playing. He appears against his completely filled trophy cabinet, informing Pamela of the warm and friendly first-name basis he and the others at Disney share. He then tells a story of how his two girls were reading and laughing over a Mary Poppins book in their youth. At the time he wasn’t familiar with the character, but he loved the book as much as his daughters did, making a promise to them that he would adapt the work to film. For two decades, Mrs. Travers has done all she can to thwart the fulfillment of Mr. Disney’s promise. (It should be noted at this point that Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks both absolutely excel in their respective parts throughout the entire film.)
The woman’s conditions are strict and numerous. The film, if there is to be one, must be a live-action film, with no animation. All conversations and the reading of the contract must be tape-recorded. This is to a certain extent understandable: Mary Poppins and the fictional Banks family are like family to Pamela, and the story shows very little of that family outside of Travers’ own childhood. Hit with a barrage of demands, Walt Disney lets out a humorous “d–n,” giving a lighthearted moment to an otherwise remarkably mature story. Read-overs of the movie script meet heavy resistance as Travers fights over every little scenic detail, the choices of actors, and even some of the musical performances, which are enjoyable and well done with or without the Mary Poppins context. As is shown in another flashback, thanks to her highly imaginative father, someone has to teach Pamela, whether young or old, how to be happy again.
Before that can happen, Travers’ demands will only become more extreme. There must be no instance of the color red in the film, at all. Even Walt Disney himself becomes softly angry at her insistent behavior, but no one (the man himself included) has any idea what to do with her. The story of why Pamela does half of the things she does–avoiding certain colors, certain foods, certain drinks, certain words, and affluence altogether–is at once fascinating, touching, and horrific and is more than worth discovering by watching this film for oneself.
A spoonful of sulfur
As the continued flashbacks show Pamela’s childhood and family to be more and more complex, Pamela’s world-weary cynicism begins rubbing off on some of the other Disney staff. She is convinced that happiness will not prepare children for life and that Mary Poppins is the “enemy” of whimsy and sentiment, and yet Walt sees this as absurd in a story with a flying nanny and a talking umbrella. Time goes on, and the guys have made little progress in getting Mrs. Travers to approve of any of their ideas, which Walt on the other hand is on board with. Some of the songs do hit an emotional chord with the woman, as do several other production decisions. The film begins moving rapidly back and forth between the past and present, becoming more depressing, tragic, and powerful as it goes. A particularly notable section comes when young Pamela and her family are given a nanny, who insists that the children should help as opposed to expecting her to do everything.
Travers then receives the opportunity of a lifetime–a trip to Disneyland with Walt Disney himself. She doesn’t want to be there, and he knows it, so he is determined to treat her time and patience as valuable. That being stated, he has a curt moment when he refuses to let the woman abandon her childhood, and said moment is hilarious. Defeated, she climbs on a carousel horse, and if you think it’s wonderful to see her smile (and it is), wait and see what she does shortly thereafter.
Additional difficulties arise, especially pertaining to the film’s proposed use of animation. Travers doesn’t seem to comprehend the idea of animation on live-action footage, which Disney’s own collaboration Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would later make famous use of, and barges out of Walt Disney’s office as abruptly as she went in. More emotional are several pivotal events that take place for young Pamela, and while these moments feel delivered “on cue,” the film surrounding them is more than sincere enough to make them work.
One of the movie’s best moments, however, comes in the form of a private discussion between Walt and this not-so-inscrutable woman he has done everything in his power to be a friend to. Walt understands the whole story, and he has his own history. He sees how the Poppins character relates to Travers’ own life, he knows how it feels to love a character and story deeply, and he assures this woman that the Mary Poppins story will be about hope, in a way and place that’s been right in front of the viewer all along but is deeply needed just the same.
The film ends as a very different creature from how it began–similar and consistent throughout are the excellent acting, impeccable pacing, and wonderful storytelling, but very different are the mood and setting. The two main plots, initially simplistic and dissonant, combine to form a beautiful if oftentimes brutal shadow of one another, and as such, this is a story that should contain a ton of appeal for adult audiences but is best kept away from children. There’s a ton of alcohol consumption (relevant to the story, whereas the film makes a conscious point to omit smoking depictions), some brief strong language paired with a poor use of God’s name, and a medically gruesome scene that is “violent” in its own way. That being stated, this is an amazing glimpse into the life and the mind of a special individual whose creations gave happiness to a few, and eventually, to many.
Conclusion: A man has dreams
Walt Disney is to be commended for successfully fulfilling the promise he made to his girls so many years ago, though it could also be argued that this was an inconvenience that Mrs. Travers could not have brought upon herself. He passed away only a few short years after Mary Poppins arrived in theaters to widespread acclaim, including an Oscar for the visual effects. The animation suggested whimsy to Pamela–it’s a shame Akira didn’t exist yet, and I imagine the Poppins author was probably not familiar with Astro Boy, which did exist at the time. In any case, she eventually does smile–a little, then a little more, then a lot, which sums up just as well my feelings about this extraordinary work.
I scarcely doubt mankind will ever stop treasuring hope or seeking after it, and I can only imagine it’ll continue to be a blessed necessity for as long as people endure on this earth. Life is not always a feel-good story, but even when such a story meets with challenges or doesn’t quite work out as planned, that’s no reason to give up. Pick up right where you left off, and keep on going.
Regardless of whom this beloved nanny has truly come to save, this movie needs no such rescue. It is a marvelous relational journey that aims for all the right notes and hits every one. Saving Mr. Banks is a joy to experience, and it is worth savoring.