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Tearing Up All Over Again

‘Saving Mr. Banks’ renews Mary Poppins charm

Darleen Ortega | 1/8/2014, 2:07 p.m.
Opinionated Judge Darleen Ortega reviews the Disney blockbuster
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) courts P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, for the rights to develop her book into a feature film. Disney Enterprises, Inc.

I went to see "Saving Mr. Banks" with pretty low expectations. I'm a fan of Emma Thompson, and "Mary Poppins" was a childhood favorite of mine, but I'm more jaded now. I am fairly resistant to too-neat resolutions of complex social conflicts, and this film about how Hollywood mogul Walt Disney overcame the objections of the author, P. L. Travers, to the film adaptation of her beloved stories seemed fraught with potential for irritation. I smelled sentimentality from the trailer and was prepared to be annoyed or, at least, underwhelmed.

Instead, I was amused, and charmed, and blubbered through much of it.

That's not to say it's a film without flaws. I did indeed notice plenty of oversimplification while watching, even without knowing anything about the back story. Since seeing it, I've discussed it with friends and read up on Travers and see a lot of valid criticisms of the material.

The relationship between Travers and Disney, for example, was more complicated in real life; both likely behaved worse than what is depicted on-screen, and many, perhaps most of her objections to the Disney treatment of Mary Poppins were never really resolved. The film depicts a meeting of the minds that I didn't really believe while watching it and, sure enough, that part is pretty clearly fiction. This is itself a Disney film and it feels typically scrubbed and shiny, more sugar than medicine.

But the fact remains that Travers -- a middle-aged Londoner who had no love at all for the Disney mystique -- did agree to allow Disney to make the film. Why? The deal she got (which included 5 percent of the film's gross) set her up for life, but was it only about the money? She fought hard for her vision for the film through the years of its production, and insisted on coming to the Hollywood premiere (as well she should have) despite the fact that Disney did not invite her.

Even in the undeniably patriarchal world of the early 1960s, outmatched by Disney in money, power, and influence, Travers was no victim. Nor, indeed, was she a hero; she insisted on recording her fights with the film's writers and, as you can hear from a sampling played during the closing credits, (a very nice touch) her demands were far from reasonable.

All that said, I re-watched the trailer while reading up on the back story, and teared up all over again, remembering the film's charms. For me, the film still works, though I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why. Here's my best shot.

I start with Emma Thompson. She lifts this material beyond what might otherwise have been a cheap comic contrast between a veddy proper Brit, unimpressed by the "jollification" endemic to Disney's world, and the folksy mogul. Her Travers is fittingly complex; many of her biting criticisms of that world are apt, even while she is being rude and offensive; she is a master at calling out artificiality, and she delivers the film's best lines with a perfect, precise zing that makes you laugh out loud but also wince at the thought of having to deal with her. She isn't exactly a feminist icon; she is quite unkind and self-centered, as was the real Travers. But she is also wounded, as many unkind people are. And she is a satisfying bundle of contradictions.