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The Making of Mary Poppins: An Emotional Roller Coaster Ride

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Musical numbers, dancing animated penguins and a flying nanny are all contributive elements that appeared in Disney’s classic, Marry Poppins. Two-time Academy Award winner Emma Thompson and fellow double Oscar winner Tom Hanks star in Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, inspired by the amazing, untold story of how the bestselling book Marry Poppins was adapted onto the big screen. When Disney (Tom Hanks) makes a promise to his daughters to adapt the book into a film, he didn’t realize it would take 20 years to obtain the rights from the stubborn and uncompromising author, P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) who had no intention of getting her beloved nanny mauled by the movie industry. However, after book sales begin to decline and Travers slowly loses money, she has no other choice than to leave her home in England and travel to Los Angeles to hear Disney’s plans for the adaptation.

For those two short weeks in 1961, Walt Disney pulls out everything in his repertoire. Armed with imaginative storyboards and chirpy songs from the talented Robert and Richard Morton Sherman (B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman respectively), Walt launches a campaign on P.L. Travers, but the difficult author doesn’t budge. He soon begins to watch helplessly as Travers becomes increasingly immovable and the rights begin to slip further away from his fingertips. It is only when he reaches into his own childhood that Walt discovers the truth about her haunting past, and together they set Mary Poppins free to ultimately make one of the most endearing films in cinematic history. Inspired by true events, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the extraordinary, untold story of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the big screen-and the testy relationship that the legendary Walt Disney had with author P.L. Travers that almost derailed it.

I came into the movie expecting it to be a family-friendly comedy about the making of the film which turned out to be a sentimental revelation about Traverse’s life, who endured trauma and loss during her childhood, which formed the structure of Mary Poppins. These traumas and losses frequently mirrored my own experiences with the loss of two grandparents that by the time the movie reached its climax; I can’t deny that I broke down in tears. I’m telling you this to explain the context in which I saw Saving Mr. Banks, completely surprised by its content, stunned how relevant the movie is to many of the viewers’ personal experiences. It was understanding and empathy on such a deep human level that those who have not experienced it may not fully appreciate how right and true it is, which is fully revealed from start to finish. But the loss of a family member and the regret of all the things that are left unsaid and the choices unmade, is so very common to the human condition that I feel the movie will strike a chord with a large portion of its audience.

The rest of the cast is strong and heartfelt as well. Colin Farrell is extremely likeable as Travers’ father. Farrell’s acting brings attention to the gradual suffering of Travers’ family as they deal with his alcoholism and choice to drag them around with him, not unlike props in the life he longs for, while still showing the storyteller beloved by his children. Ruth Wilson, perfect as Travers’ long-suffering, depressed, suicidal mother, is sympathetic as she watches her children idolize the man she knows is far from the delightful angel that they believe him to be. But she is equally perfect in her own measure, depicting the guilt of a parent who allows the unstable and emotionally abusive father to pull them all down with him, unable to stand up for herself or even her children despite the dangers they face due to their father’s behavior.

But it’s not all sorrow and drama; indeed there are plenty of humorous and uplifting moments. Watching Travers wrestle with the Disney writers, watching Travers react to one bit of Disney excess after another, and watching Disney react to Travers’ impossible expectations and demands are all delightfully entertaining bits — even while we realize it was surely not nearly as entertaining for the people suffering through it. The supporting cast of Shwartzman, Novak, Bradley Whitford, and Paul Giamatti, bring lots of energy and fun to the story, and Giamatti has a great little reveal later in the film that shows how much thought went into the storytelling here to make sure it all ties back to the main themes.

Any film experience is formed by how much we do or don’t relate to the characters and events, of course, and I feel that Saving Mr. Banks can speak to everyone if they listen closely. We’ve all suffered loss and felt the regret of all the things we never got to say, we’ve all experienced the moment when we no longer saw the world through innocent childlike eyes, and we’ve all wished we could recapture that feeling of perfect childlike wonder, “what if?” However, be warned that after you experience and view the film in its entirety, you will never experience or view Mary Poppins in the same again.