“If you don’t like Mary Poppins, we can’t be friends.” – Mark Kermode (BBC Radio 5 Film Critic)
In the last couple of weeks, two films have opened here in the United States. One being “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the other being “Saving Mr. Banks”. Both films have been immensely controversial for displaying questionable morals when it comes to the art of storytelling, but for diametrically opposite reasons.
In the case of the Scorsese film, it’s about shock, excess and the raw power of confronting limitless egos and pocketbooks at the expense of hardworking people everywhere.
With “Saving Mr. Banks”, it’s about the use of sentimentality in regards to “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers’ battle with Walt Disney, the man who once promised his children he would make a film of her book.
Because this film was produced by the Walt Disney company, the movie has taken a lot of flack by critics for championing Uncle Walt’s venture to whittle away Mrs. Travers’ nerves, until she had no choice but to give up the rights to her book to do with it what he will.
Never mind that the original script was written independently of the studio. I suppose there are some that just “can’t see past the end of their nose.”
Now I have to admit that when I first saw the film “Saving Mr. Banks”, I went in expecting to see this one sided depiction, but what I got was something a whole lot more.
In fact, I was not prepared for how moving the last few minutes of the movie would prove to be.
Up until that point though, the film tells two stories. The first is about P.L. Travers working relationship with the songwriters, screenplay author and Walt Disney himself on the proper way “Mary Poppins” (never just Mary) should be told on screen.
The second chronicles P.L. Travers’ life as a child of an alcoholic banker and an emotionally distant mother.
I hesitantly say these are flashbacks because the film gives almost equal running time to these sequences. A closer equivalent would be to “Godfather 2” in its way of telling parallel stories to reach a common goal.
There are many funny and sad scenes along the way, as you can imagine. There are also characters in the film that are clearly composites (But how is this different from any other true story made into a film?) and other feuds which occured that unfortunately don’t get any screen time at all.
For instance, the Sherman Brothers (played convincingly well by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) didn’t get along outside of composing songs. The reason for that is during World War 2, one of them got stationed in paradise and the other got sent to a war zone and got shot. The bullet is mentioned in the film, but their hostility towards one another is not.
Also, Walt Disney’s smoking habit is only hinted at off screen by a few coughs when we know he died a couple years later due to habitually smoking.
(You see, Disney has a policy in their films about not showing smoking.)
Also, Mrs. Travers is known to have cried during the premiere of “Mary Poppins”; not because she was moved, but because she hated this adaptation.
That being said, whatever the truth, whichever little anecdotes were left out or combined, the fact remains that the “Saving Mr. Banks” ending that director John Lee Hancock and his editor, Mark Livolsi constructed is truly special and not at all the “Disneyfied” version many others are claiming.
Shall we begin..?
The sequence begins with P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) being led into the “Mary Poppins” premiere by Mickey Mouse himself. This suggests, at least, a partial truce she has made with the Mouse Factory that has sought to bring her story to life.
Regardless of her internal thoughts and feelings, this is a big night for both of them.
The next shot is of the theater curtains opening, presumably from Mrs. Traver’s seat at the premiere.
The audience claps.
The lights go out and the film begins. Anticipation is high, but Mrs. Travers’ expectations couldn’t be any lower.
She is trapped, I mean sitting, between the Sherman Brothers, with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) sitting right behind her.
This is going to be a long night.
Walt Disney himself just wants to enjoy the evening. He has literally spent over twenty years of his life to get to this moment and now he just wants to sit back and be entertained.
Settling in, Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) takes a look around, probably estimating the level of hostility he’ll have to hear from under Mrs. Travers’ breath this evening.
The film then dissolves to Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) in the nursery talking to the children, Jane and Michael Banks.
Mary Poppins: In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – SNAP!
The moment Mary Poppins snaps, the film cuts to P.L. Travers acting annoyed and dismayed by the sheer nonsense she is now seeing before her.
Mary Poppins (o.s.): The job’s a game!
She rolls her eyes. This is the type of frivolous adaptation Mrs. Travers feared would be made of her work.
While the rest of the world sees magic, she can only see the differences.
The film then dissolves to the infamous scene in “Mary Poppins” where Bert (Dick Van Dyke) dances with a few animated penguins to the tune of “Jolly Holliday”.
This scene, more than any other, is something P.L. Travers fought hard against, but Disney won this particular argument and subsequently put it in the film.
Now she has to bear it in front of a live audience.
This has now become a moment of complete embarrassment for Mrs. Travers as she puts her head down.
Richard and Robert Sherman look over, probably to see which one of them is about to be smacked.
The dancing scene continues…
The audience is laughing and delighted by what they are seeing. Even Walt can’t help but smile.
The crowd is clearly eating this up.
Now it’s not hard for P.L. Travers herself to take note as she gives the crowd a surprising turn of the head.
Cutting back, we see now that she is relaxing a bit more by the audience’s reaction, but it’s clear that Richard Sherman is still in fear for his life.
The film then dissolves further into the “Mary Poppins” screening, in what is probably the only misstep of this entire sequence.
Not because of the acting or the filmmaking talent displayed, but because the “Step in Time” scene occurs later than some of the next scenes we are shown.
However, I think it’s best to let Mrs. Travers enjoy this little ray of sunshine.
(But I have to say, when dealing with a classic film, one that everyone knows backwards and forwards, it’s important to stick to the timeline.)
“Step in time, step in time
Step in time, step in time
Never need a reason, never need a rhyme
Step in time, we step in time”
Now the film literally dissolves from Mrs. Travers face to Mary Poppins herself and we are treated to one of the most iconic lines from the 1964 movie.
Mary Poppins: Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of their own, can’t see past the end of their nose.
This statement jolts Mrs. Travers and makes her take note of what is being said.
Jane (o.s.): Past the end of his nose?
Bert (o.s.): Well now, there must be some mistake.
Bert: Your dad is a fine gentlemen and he loves you.
This statement cuts a little too close to home for the author.
Jane (o.s): I don’t think so. You should have seen the look on his face.
Michael: He doesn’t like us at all.
The author is taken aback by the emotional undercurrent swelling up inside the theater (and her heart).
Bert (o.s.): Well now that doesn’t seem likely, now does it?
Mrs. Travers discreetly wipes away a tear that has not yet fallen.
Bert (o.s.): Let’s sit down…
The film then dissolves to two shots of Mrs. Travers’ family home when she was a child. The camera is static as we continue to hear Dick Van Dyke’s monologue to the children playing on the soundtrack.
“Mary Poppins” the film and P.L. Travers life converge at this moment and the feeling is of a past forgotten (or shunned).
Bert (o.s.) You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father.
Dissolving back, the above shot was shown earlier in the film, but now with one alteration. Young P.L. Travers can no longer be seen on the outside stair case pretending to be a hen.
Images like these remind one of the cold detachment of Ingmar Bergman.
As the merry go round revolves without any riders, we sense just how empty a past can seem when one has done everything in their power to ignore, rather than deal with the traumas that life has bestowed upon you.
Bert (o.s.): There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day…
The merry go round horses then dissolve into a shot of P.L. Travers and her mother on a real live horse.
Bert (o.s.) …hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up.
While this may appear as simply a transition, it is also a wonderful, subtle nod to the 1964 classic when Mary Poppins, Bert and the Banks children ride their horses off the merry go round to join the fox hunt.
P.L. Travers is now shown as a child giving her father his last bottle of alcohol while on his death bed.
Jane (o.s.): Father? In a cage?
Bert (o.s.): They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped, some of ’em, carpets and all.
Jane (o.s.): You won’t ever leave us, Mary Poppins?
The film then dissolves back to Mrs. Travers clinging to the words on the screen as each new syllable spoken takes her back to her childhood.
These are thoughts that have clearly both haunted and inspired her, but it’s been a good long while since any of them have been brought to the surface with this kind of intensity.
Jane (o.s.): Whatever would we do without you?
Mary Poppins (o.s.): I shall stay until the wind changes.
The music then segues into an instrumental version of Feed the Birds as P.L. Travers looks on.
In a shocking move, the next cut reveals what scene she is looking at.
It’s the moment when Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson), the kids’ father, is called out to the bank to be fired.
I’m almost certain that when we think of the 1964 classic this is not a scene that first comes to mind. In a film full of wondrous songs and images, this part of the film always seemed long as a child and most of us probably brushed our teeth during this segment whenever it played late on TV.
However, we are now being shown that this is THE scene of the film which harnesses the emotion of the piece and I love that.
I love when a movie can show me something in a new light and make think about it differently.
As the “Feed the Birds” music continues to play, the film then cuts to P.L. Travers as a young girl giving her father (Colin Farrell) a hug just as he is almost fired from the bank.
The camera then cuts in tighter and we are once again reminded how much this woman has had to close off her emotions since she was a child.
We then transition from the little girl coldly looking at the ground and feeling distant from her father (i.e. her whole world) to a middle aged woman whose emotional capacity to feel has now been tipped to the breaking point.
This dissolve back to the present day suggests a lifetime of regrets and sadness…
…but in facing that past, she is now understanding aspects of her heart she thought was lost back in Australia.
Notice the quiet moment when Richard Sherman looks to his right and sees her in pain. This isn’t a look like, “I’m glad that witch is suffering after what she put us through.” There is a feeling of compassion in his eyes that indicates there was more to this story than even he was made aware of.
The camera cuts back to the movie and Mr. Banks is still on his way to the bank. Showing him walking away in this context is also important because Mrs. Travers is once again feeling that her father is leaving and abandoning her.
This time, in front of everyone.
This feeling is practically unbearable for her. She has never felt this exposed.
Walt Disney notices Mrs. Travers is practically struggling to breathe in between her tears. He is genuinely concerned, not smitten by her grief.
Mr. Disney then leans in to comfort her and she takes a hold of his hand.
Walt: It’s alright. It’s over, Ms. Travers. Mr. Banks is going be alright, I promise.
He then makes a small move to go back to his seat but she holds him there.
Not wanting Uncle Walt to think that he succeeded in pulling her heartstrings, she replies…
Mrs. Travers: I can’t abide cartoons.
Walt Disney returns to his seat and lets out a small sigh of frustration. She just won’t give him any acknowledgement of this soon to be cinematic triumph. There’s nothing for him to do but just try to enjoy the rest of the evening.
The film then cuts to the final song, “Let’s go fly a kite” as the audience is fully engaged.
Cutting back to P.L. Travers, we see that while she is still in tears, they have let up slightly and she is once again whisked back into the magic that is this song by the Sherman Brothers.
Even Walt can’t help but marvel at the feeling this song conjures up inside one’s heart.
Mrs. Travers sits in her seat silently singing the song to herself until the music slowly fades out on the “Saving Mr. Banks” soundtrack. In its place, an instrumental version of “Chim Chim Cheree” comes on.
The film then cuts to the Banks singing and dancing in their foyer…
…before recalling a moment Mrs. Travers had with her father in happier times.
As if taking this moment as a sign, P.L. Travers stops watching the film and looks off screen as if to suggest she feels, for the first time, a presence from above looking after her.
It may have been a struggle, but confronting the themes of this novel to film adaptation knocked down these (once) impenetrable walls and have now brought her a new sense of peace.
The film then cuts back to her as a little girl saying to her father, “Don’t ever leave me”.
And her father responds, “Never. I promise. I will never leave you”, as he lays on his deathbed.
Feeling now that her father never abandoned her after all, P.L. Travers can do nothing but smile and feel grateful that her life has brought her to this moment.
In the closing moments, Mrs. Travers is once again seen as a little girl, now sitting with her father in the garden. They embrace in a way that suggests their bond was never fully broken by time. It was just her perception of things.
“Winds in the east, mist coming in.
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”