How do you solve a problem like P.L. Travers? In her sessions with Walt Disney’s team over Mary Poppins, she objected to nearly every adaptation of her books: the Sherman Brothers’ songs, the animated penguins, and Dick Van Dyke. The studio made the movie Walt wanted. Now in Saving Mr. Banks, even Travers herself cannot escape from the Disney sheen. Emma Thompson is an imperious Mrs. Travers, withered by every imposition made upon her beloved character. We’ve been raised to find “an element of fun” in every job, but this is not Mrs. Travers’ temperment. “Where is the gravitas?” she asks. By contrast, Tom Hanks’s Walt Disney drips with a molasses smile, determined to crack Thompson’s prickly shell. The filmmakers dig into her childhood and her relationship with an alcoholic father (in an moving performance by Colin Farrell). For all her effrontery, Travers needed her own magical nanny to rescue her family.
The philosophy behind Saving Mr. Banks is simple and (mostly) true. The movie strikes a false note whenever the screenwriters (Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) invent, especially Thompson’s cathartic tears at the movie’s premiere. The real Travers did cry, it seemed, at watching her characters so thoroughly changed. I personally do not feel badly that Travers agreed to the film rights; its success can’t have hurt interest in her books, and the question of “should she sign?” is answered by the beloved Mary Poppins film itself. What is an artistic culture without adaptation and transformation? But I wish this movie didn’t try to win Mrs. Travers over so easily. She was not the spoonful of sugar type.
Here’s a thorough, more accurate account of Travers and Disney’s work together: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/19/051219fa_fact1