A lovable Disney classic has fraught beginnings, writes Romain Raynaldy.
Disney delves into its own history in Saving Mr. Banks, a movie about the difficult birth of the classic film Mary Poppins, wrenched from a tale by a reluctant, Australian-born British author.
Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, who uses all his sunny Californian charms to persuade writer P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to allow him to use the story.
Thompson has won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominations for her performance and the film is up for an Oscar for Best Original Score - one of the five Academy Awards Mary Poppins won in 1965.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Alamo, A Perfect World), Saving Mr. Banks recounts the two weeks Travers spent in 1961 at Disney Studios, where Disney battled to win her consent for his whimsical adaptation of her work.
Queensland-born Helen Lyndon Goff, who changed her name to P.L. Travers after moving to Britain - a nation whose starchy national stereotype she came to embody - began writing her Mary Poppins stories in 1934.
For two decades, Disney had been trying to secure the rights to her tale about an English nanny who floats into a family's home with the help of a magic umbrella.
Disney had nonetheless already begun the film, and invited Travers to come and work with the screenwriter and composers Robert and Richard Sherman, hoping to win her confidence - never imagining how hostile she could be.
To prepare for the role, Thompson studied everything about Travers. "Around some corners, you'd find this terrible monster. And around other corners, you'd find a beaten child. She was the most extraordinary combination of things," Thompson said.
"I suppose that was the scary thing. In films, we often get to play people who are emotionally, or at least morally, consistent in some way and she wasn't consistent - in any way. You would not know what you would get, from one moment to the next."
The movie is constructed around repeated flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia, marked by a boundless admiration for her father, a day-dreaming bank manager and chronic alcoholic whose first name was Travers.
"Every time Travers appears on-screen ... you are seeing a particular stage of his development, which is actually a particular stage of his disintegration," said Colin Farrell, who plays the paternal but immature character. "It felt to me that he was somebody who is married with three children and has all the responsibilities that come with that but, emotionally, he has never been able to leave his childhood behind," he said.
The film doesn't claim to depict a historically exact account of events. It is, however, based on memories of Disney veterans, notably in creating the unforgettable tunes for the 1964 film Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews.
Richard Sherman, the sole survivor of the musical duo behind the score, was "literally a never-ending fountain of stories, of facts, of anecdotes, and of bits and pieces of everything that had happened," Hanks said.
Travers had been staunchly opposed to the inclusion of music. When she did at last agree, she wanted stiff, established Edwardian verse in place of the vaudeville-inspired original ditties that Disney had proposed. Remembered Sherman: "We wrote Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious because the kids couldn't come back from their imaginary adventure with Dick Van Dyke with a physical souvenir. We thought, why doesn't Mary Poppins give them the biggest word in the world instead?
"We tried 'supercollosal' but then realised that an English nanny would be more likely to say 'atrocious' - and then we were off. When the English language is used well, it's like music already."
Travers was unmoved by lyrical whimsy. "She said: 'It's not a word.' She didn't like anything we wrote, actually," added Sherman.
Thompson's portrayal was, confessed Sherman, rather generous about the character of Travers: "She is much kinder and sweeter than she was to us.
"She had a terribly big ego. It was an ordeal."
Hanks, who is also a producer, said the new film was a perfect illustration of the ruthlessness that a filmmaker must sometimes have in order to get a project completed. "At this point, Walt Disney was pretty much used to getting his way because everybody loved him and he was the guy who invented Mickey Mouse.
"In the creative process, which is really what this movie is about, you come to loggerheads and you just have to keep the process moving forward, even if that requires jumping on a plane and flying to London.
"It's a good thing. It's fun, otherwise it would be too much work," he added.
Thompson said she knew what Travers would have thought of Saving Mr. Banks. "I think what she would say about this is: 'This is an absolutely ridiculous film! It has no relationship, whatsoever, to what was happening. But, it's about me. And the clothes were really rather nice."'
What: Saving Mr. Banks starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson
Where and when: Advance previews this weekend. Opens February 6.
- AFP, Independent