BY ERIN TORRANCE
I was duped by Disney. But I didn’t realize it until I asked that one question that always seems to be an afterthought when it comes to films based on true stories: how much of that was true? This time, I was questioning Saving Mr. Banks.
Now on home video, Saving Mr. Banks is advertised as the story behind the collaborative efforts of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to create the family classic Mary Poppins. Throughout the film, Travers continuously makes very specific and seemingly unnecessary demands, making the jobs of co-scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and musical writers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzmann) nearly impossible. Disney is patient with Travers and eventually she approves of the script and signs over the film rights to Mary Poppins. Eventually, the film serves as an emotional release for Travers.
For the majority of the film, Travers is portrayed as stuffy, uptight, mean and unreasonable; Disney, on the other hand, comes across as patient, kind and charismatic. We even see a sensitive side to him when he confides in Travers, telling her of the traumatic experiences he had when delivering papers for his father as a young boy. Travers herself had issues with her father, an erratic alcoholic who died when she was seven years old.
But back to the question: how much of this was true? Well—according to many history buffs, including Disney historian and author of The Vault of Walt Jim Korkis—barely a frame. Many of the film’s major elements are artistically enhanced, including the fact that Walt, instead of sticking around the studio and attempting to befriend the curmudgeonly Travers, found her so difficult to deal with that he left the studio after the first day, escaping to Palm Springs. Walt also didn’t take Travers to his theme park; he was scheduled to, but called cancelling with a cold and so left story editor Bill Dover to show her around. There is no evidence that Walt and Travers ever discussed their traumatic past relationships with their fathers (in fact, Walt only considered delivering papers for his father to be good hard work). Finally, Travers did weep at the film premiere, but it wasn’t because she was happy with the film: “Tears ran on my cheeks because it was all so distorted… I was so shocked that I felt I would never write, let alone smile, again!” At the end of the premiere, she demanded the animated scene be removed from the film, to which Walt is said to have replied, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”
With so many major elements of the film being a distortion, it begs the question of whether it really matters. I have to say that once I discovered there were so many historical inaccuracies, I felt I had been tricked into believing this happy, sentimental little story with a neat, happy ending. I have to say that my first reaction was to hand this film a D rating, likely because I was so bitter about my discovery. But then I stepped back and reminded myself that there are still some merits to the film.
Tom Hanks played Walt to a T and Emma Thompson represents the stern-minded, accomplished Travers masterfully. But these two performances didn’t overshadow the supporting roles by Novak, Schwartzmann, Whitford and Paul Giamatti, who plays Travers’ driver, Ralph. The story moved along well, and the characters’ reactions to events were natural and substantiated. I understood what was going on the entire time, and I wasn’t thrown for any loops. It was a nice, leisurely ride.
In the end, the majority of the audience will likely continue to believe that this film represents the true story, when in fact, it’s a representation of fiction. And this is why I say Disney duped me. However, judging the film on its own artistic merits, it’s an enjoyable story, an amusing Sunday afternoon watch.