It is not quite the demeanor one would expect from the
creator of one of the most beloved of children's books, "Mary
Poppins." But Travers was so worried that Disney and his dream
factory would ruin her story of the magical, flying British
nanny that she subverted their work at every turn during two
weeks at the Burbank studios in 1961.
The entertaining push and pull between the acid-tongued Travers
and the Disney storytellers is the heart of "Saving Mr. Banks,"
a film, from Walt Disney Co of course, that opens in limited
release in U.S. theaters on Friday and nationwide a week later.
It stars Oscar winners Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as
Thompson, in a role that has generated buzz of a best actress
Oscar nomination, had no shortage of biographical material from
which to pull together her haughty middle-aged Pamela Lyndon
But six hours of actual recordings of Travers with her Disney
writers and songwriters might have revealed the most about her
personality and the suffering that lies beneath artistic
creation. She cringed at the thought of animation and dancing
penguins and even the songs themselves.
"You can hear in the juddering...the distress in it, of course,"
said Thompson, mimicked Travers' clipped British accent and tone
"One of the most revealing things was that, overtly, she was
here to cooperate. Covertly, she was here to sabotage, and that
was a wonderful thing to play with."
And sabotage she did, though obviously not enough to stop the
film, which was released in 1964, three decades after the first
"Mary Poppins" book, and went on to win five Oscars.
DEPICTING DISNEY FOR DISNEY
While the film isn't quite suitable for the little ones like
"Mary Poppins" — due to the dark parts of Travers' Australian
childhood that inspired her work — it is expected to fare well
at the box office as a holiday family film.
"Saving Mr. Banks" is expected to gross $16 million to $18
million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales during the December 20
weekend, according to Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for
Exhibitor Relations Co. The movie cost $35 million to produce.
"Saving Mr. Banks" has garnered positive early reviews, with
many critics praising the performances above all. But reviews
noted a sympathetic depiction of Disney, even though he courted
controversy as one of the most powerful studio bosses.
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Director John Lee Hancock, who also directed the 2009 family
drama "The Blind Side," noted that the script was developed
outside Disney, but was easily accepted by its top brass. The
Disney family also had to give its approval.
"I don't think this movie could have been developed
within the walls of Disney," Hancock said. "I think they would have
chipped away at Walt and made him flawless."
The Walt Disney portrayed by Hanks smokes, drinks scotch and curses
and tries to get away without inviting Travers to the "Mary Poppins"
premiere. Hancock said he was "terrified" and "ready for war" with
the studio over the depiction, but in the end, he "didn't need to go
'SHE SUFFERED, AND I WAS THERE'
Disney had worked for two decades to bring "Mary Poppins" to the
screen, as a promise to his daughters. He was only able to lure
Travers from her London home to Burbank when her sales were
faltering and her career was flagging.
The film shows Disney as a hands-on boss,
interrupting Travers' intense, biting sessions with screenwriter Don
DaGradi, played by Bradley Whitford, and the composing Sherman
brothers played by BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman, who playfully
toil on tunes like "Let's Go Fly a Kite."
And despite Travers' biting and belittling ways, Whitford notes that
"she's right. What really matters to her is the emotional integrity
which she begins to understand as the reason she wrote this stuff in
the first place."
The film opens with one of many flashback scenes to her childhood,
as the eldest daughter of a tender but terribly flawed father played
by Colin Farrell. He is the inspiration for Mr. Banks, the banker
father of the children in "Mary Poppins" who is ultimately saved by
Eventually, Disney, breaks down Travers' resistance by showing her
that he too had a dark childhood and that storytelling was also his
way to deal with the pain. A few years later, as Travers attends the
film's premiere, tears stream down her face.
Hancock said Thompson makes the role look "effortless," but he saw
in filming the toll that playing a complicated and sad woman took on
his lead actress.
"She suffered," said Thompson, "and I was there."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine;
editing by Eric Kelsey and Lisa Shumaker)
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