Movie Review – Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Back in 1964, the musical fantasy Mary Poppins told the story of an English nanny and her unique style of organizing the home and bringing together a family.

The movie became one of Walt Disney’s biggest and most beloved films of all time.  From the fantastic characters to the unforgettable music, Mary Poppins continues to charm old audiences and earn new ones.

What most people don’t know is that bringing Mary Poppins to the big screen was a bit of an adventure itself.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - movie poster

2013’s Saving Mr. Banks tells part of the story about how Walt Disney and his movie producers worked with P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins book series, and finally managed to have her sign over the rights to make the film that we know today.  The film takes place in 1961 as well as 1907, and we learn that there’s much more to the story of Mary Poppins than we ever knew.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks stars Emma Thompson as Pamela “P. L.” Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.  Supporting them are Colin Farrell as Travers Robert Goff, Pamela’s father; Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Pamela’s chauffeur; Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, co-writer of the film; Jason Schwartzman as Richard M. Sherman, composer/lyricist of the film and brother to Robert; and B. J. Novak as Robert B. Sherman, composer/lyricist of the film and brother to Richard.

Saving Mr. Banks beings in London, England in 1961.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Pamela Travers is convinced to finally sell her 'Mary Poppins' story to Walt Disney.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pamela “P. L.” Travers (Emma Thompson) is at her home when her agent, Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert), strongly encourages her to sell the rights to her Mary Poppins books to Walt Disney.  While Pamela’s funds are running low and the income from her Mary Poppins books has severely dwindled, she’s still hesitant on selling her prized books to Disney.  Especially if he intends on making it an animated film, something she severely despises.

Walt Disney has been trying to get Pamela to sign over the rights for the past twenty years.  She finally agrees to fly to Los Angeles, California and meet with Disney in person.

While Pamela is on the eleven-hour flight to Los Angeles, she has a flashback to her childhood days back in Australia.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Travers Goff leads his family to the train station.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

In 1907, Pamela was a child when her family was living in Queensland, Australia.  All of a sudden one day it’s time to move and leave home.  Her father, Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), has accepted a new bank job in the town of Allora, a small town at the end of the railroad tracks out in the middle of nowhere.

We later learn that Travers has problems at work that lead to his alcoholism, but at home he’s a loving father who finds ways to have fun with his children.  We see evidence of this when they leave their home in Queensland and arrive at their new home, a rather rustic place out in the countryside, at Allora.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Pamela isn't thrilled to see her Disney-themed hotel room.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

When Pamela arrives at the Los Angeles International Airport, she’s greeted by Ralph (Paul Giamatti), her chauffeur provided by Walt Disney.  Ralph is a friendly driver who tries to enlighten Pamela’s day, but she doesn’t want anything to do with him.  He drives her to one of the top hotels in the city where a deluxe room is waiting for her.  That is, a deluxe room filled with Disney balloons, fruit baskets, and plenty of Disney stuffed animals.  Pamela is almost insulted when she sees all of the gifts waiting for her.  On television she catches a glimpse of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) during one of his episodes of Walt Disney Presents.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Walt Disney finally meets with Pamela Travers.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The next morning Ralph drives Pamela to the Walt Disney Studios to meet Walt Disney himself.  The two of them meet in Walt’s office, and he tries to get her to sign over the rights to Mary Poppins.  Pamela does not do so, but she agrees to allow Disney to begin creating the film.  The catch is that she gets the final say for pretty much everything in the film, from the script to the costumes to the music itself.  She isn’t thrilled with the film being a musical, but she’s willing to work with it.  Pamela holds on to the contract throughout her stay.  As long as everything goes well, then she’ll sign him the rights to Mary Poppins.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - The crew quickly learns that Pamela is a stern woman.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Walt leads Pamela into a recording studio, the location where they’ll be working on the script, costumes, music, and other aspects of the film.  There she meets with Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), a co-writer of the film, and the Sherman BrothersRichard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B. J. Novak), the composers and lyricists of the film.

Before they get started, Pamela insists that all of the sessions be audio recorded.  It’s not stated whether this is for a legal reason or just for her personal collection.  But all of the sessions are recorded.  During the end credits to Saving Mr. Banks we get to hear one of the real audio sessions that was recorded back in 1961.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - The Sherman Brothers impress Walt and Pamela.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Work on Mary Poppins goes painful for everybody at first.  Pamela is shooting down and changing many of the film’s details, much to the dismay of Don, Richard and Robert.  Most of their work is based on the story itself and the illustrations in the book, but Pamela claims that the details are incorrect.  Walt Disney and the film crew seem to be missing the big picture behind the film.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - As a child, Pamela had a strong relationship with her father.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The film continues and we also see more glimpses into Pamela’s childhood in Allora, Australia.  Her family goes through hard times as her father continues to drink, but he still has a special way of having fun with Pamela and her sisters.  Travers’ problems though continue to strain the family and put that much more stress on her mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson).

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - A drunken Travers embarrasses himself and his bank while giving a speech.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The town is hosting a carnival, complete with games, prizes, and even a carousel ride.  The carnival is actually hosted by the town’s bank, and her father is supposed to address the crowd and give a speech.  Unfortunately, he’s nervous about doing so.  Travers spots a drinking stand and has a few drinks before climbing on stage and addressing the crowd.  He embarrasses himself while doing so and then falls off the stage, breaking his leg.

Margaret blames Travers’ behavior on his drinking problem.  This was the last straw.  She had hidden the rest of his alcohol at home.  Travers speaks with Pamela and gets the young girl to find and bring him the bottle of alcohol.  She searches the house and finally finds it hidden outside.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Pamela saves her mother from committing suicide.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pamela’s mother literally cannot take it any more.  She knows that it was Pamela that brought the alcohol back to her father.  One night Margaret visits Pamela in bed and tells her to look after her sisters.  She’ll understand why everything is happening later in life.  Margaret then leaves the house in the middle of the night and walks into the river, intending to drown herself.  Pamela follows her mother into the river and convinces her to come back home.  Margaret suddenly realizes what was about to happen, and she returns to the house with her daughter.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Walt Disney is waiting for Pamela at Disneyland.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Back in Los Angeles, Walt Disney speculates that Pamela is being so hostile and bitter because she’s lost touch with her childhood.  She doesn’t have any children herself, and she doesn’t want Mary Poppins to focus on the Banks’ children.  To help change her point-of-view, Walt arranges for Ralph to drive Pamela to the front gates of Disneyland.  Walt is there waiting at the train station.  He takes Pamela on a brief tour of the park and even manages to get her to ride on King Arthur Carrousel.  When she finally climbs onto a horse and the ride begins, Walt chuckles to himself.  He tells her that he just won $20 by getting her to actually go on a ride in the theme park.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - They finally score a hit with 'Let's Go Fly a Kite.'

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

At the studio, the production crew finally hits a high note with the song, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”  Pamela is thrilled with the ending of the film when Mr. Banks repairs his children’s kite, proving that he’s not a cold and heartless father.  The whole family in the movie is dancing and singing to the song, and so are the production crew in the film studio.  Pamela even joins in on the fun, much to the rejoice of everybody there.  Something had *finally* gone right with the film.

But what about Mary Poppins, the nanny who saves the household?

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - The nanny has arrived.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

In a flashback we see just such a nanny arrive at the Goff’s house in Allora.  She looks and acts exactly like the famous nanny from the book series.  Except this is real life.  Pamela has been promised by her father that the nanny would fix everything.  At that point in time Travers is becoming sicker from influenza, a disease that’s been further complicated from his alcohol abuse.

But the nanny cannot fix everything.  Shortly after she arrives and the house starts to become orderly, Travers dies.  The death of her father hits Pamela hard.  Those negative memories had been haunting her for most of her life.  It’s a cold and brutal reality in life, something that children of all people shouldn’t have to endure.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Pamela is furious when she learns about the animation in the film.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

In Los Angeles, Pamela becomes horrified when she learns that the dancing penguins in the movie would be animated.  She storms into Walt Disney’s office and shows her anger at him, accusing him of tricking her and using the music to seduce her.  Pamela hands him back the unsigned contract and goes to the airport to catch the first flight back home to London.

Just after Pamela leaves his office, Walt goes through his expense reports, wondering how much money he wasted on Pamela’s visit.  When he sees the airline tickets he notices that Pamela’s named is listed as Helen Goff.  Was he really talking to the wrong person?  One of his workers quickly points out that Pamela is really from Australia, and not England as they originally believed.

Ralph drives Pamela back to the airport.  Before she boards her flight, he shows her the Mary Poppins book that his disabled daughter has loved.  He’s started reading it himself.  Pamela autographs the book for Ralph and his daughter, and she tells him that he’s the only American that she actually liked.

Pamela flies back to London and is glad to be back at home.  She’s convinced that the trip to Los Angeles was one long nightmare.  It’s something that she should have never done.

Just as she’s settling back into her home the doorbell rings.  It’s Walt Disney.  Pamela is shocked that he made the trip there and so quickly.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Walt Disney shares a story from his childhood.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The two of them sit down for tea inside of Pamela’s house.  Walt then shares a story from his childhood back in Kansas City, Missouri.  His father had owned a newspaper delivery route, and it was up to Walt and his older brother Roy to deliver the morning and evening papers every day, rain, snow or shine.  Failure to do so would result in his father’s wrath and the buckle end of his belt.  While Walt despised his father’s anger during those harder times in life, he still loved him in the end.  He convinces Pamela to let go of the darker memories of her past and focus on the happier times.  Pamela is surprised that Walt knows so much about her past, but she doesn’t budge on his offer.

After Walt leaves, Pamela considers his offer.  She finally agrees and signs the contract, giving Walt Disney permission to use Mary Poppins.

Fast forward to 1964.

Mary Poppins is set to premier soon in Los Angeles, California.  The guest list is complete, and Walt Disney decides not to invite Pamela Travers to the Hollywood premier of the film.  He wants to protect his film and not take the chance of Pamela doing a negative interview or harsh criticism of the final product.  She’ll be invited to the film’s premier in London, England later that year.  Besides, London is closer to home for the woman.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Pamela Travers surprises Walt by showing up in his office.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pamela has also taken note that she hasn’t received an invitation.  She talks it over with her agent and decides to fly to Los Angeles on her own.  Ralph is there again to give her a ride to the studio, and she is waiting in Walt Disney’s office when he arrives at work.  Walt is surprised by her arrival and makes sure that she receives an invitation to the Hollywood premier.

The premier for Mary Poppins is held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California.  There’s a big fanfare outside of the world famous theater, complete with many Disney characters along with characters from the film.  Mickey Mouse himself escorts Pamela Travers into the theater.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - The big premier for 'Mary Poppins.'

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The film is played and we see Pamela’s reactions, from anger and disappointment to incredibly joy and sadness for the Mr. Banks character, a man based strongly on her father.

Saving Mr. Banks ends with the camera panning back into the clouds with music from Mary Poppins.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is Saving Mr. Banks a good film?

As a whole, this is an outstanding film that takes a look at the creation of one of Disney’s biggest films of all time.  Essentially it’s a movie about the making of a movie.  As strange of a concept that it may sound, it works in this case.

Be warned — This film may not be too appropriate for children.  While the movie focuses on Walt Disney and the creation of Mary Poppins, it also deals with quite a few adult problems.  You see a very serious look at alcohol abuse, a mother who tries to commit suicide, an alcoholic father who dies, and a daughter who carries those painful memories for the rest of her life, making it look like she’s a cranky and bitter person because of it.  There’s also a quick scene with Walt Disney being caught smoking a cigarette, something that he did frequently in private but never in front of children as well as certain guests.

The attention-to-detail in Saving Mr. Banks is fantastic.  Disney fans will love all of the small details throughout the film.

Emma Thompson does a great job in the role of Pamela Travers / Helen Groff.  She’s a bitter and harsh woman that you love to hate.

Tom Hanks pulls off a fantastic job in the role of Walt Disney.  He still looks a little bit younger than Walt did during those years, but the resemblance is still outstanding.  It must have been incredible to see him standing inside of Disneyland during the filming of this movie.

On top of that we have Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak in the role of the Sherman Brothers.  Anybody who knows anything about the history of the Disney films and theme parks knows about their importance and highly acclaimed honors with their unforgettable music.  The Sherman Brothers almost steal the show in this movie.

In the end, I was a surprised about how much of the film was dark and depressing.  It really plays with your emotions for a few of the scenes as well.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – movie trailer

Saving Mr. Banks is a great film with an equally great and very talented cast of actors.  Walt Disney and Mary Poppins enthusiasts will feel right at home with this movie.  Others will also find the film to be fascinating and charming.  Just remember that this film is NOT geared towards children.  Most of the dialogue and material will be way over their heads.

four stars

Travers Goff – [voiceover] “Winds in the east / Mist coming in / Like something is brewing / About to begin / Can’t put me finger / On what lies in store / But I feel what’s to happen / All happened before.”

———–

Walt Disney – “‘No whimsy or sentiment!’ says the woman who sends a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children.”
P.L. Travers – “You think Mary Poppins is saving the children, Mr. Disney?”

———–

Walt Disney – “It’s not the children she comes to save. It’s their father. It’s YOUR father, Travers Goff.”

———–

Walt Disney – “George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

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NOTE – The screenshots of Saving Mr. Banks were added after the film was released on DVD.

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