Walt Disney and the Fight for Mary Poppins

Many writers and critics have suggested that the Disney Studios has cultivated such a rarefied image of Walt Disney that some people think of him as just a character — like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima. While Walt was quite a character, he was also very much a real human being, and until the end of his life he stayed involved in individual projects throughout the company.


One of the last projects Walt was directly and heavily involved with at the studios was Mary Poppins, the story of a magical British nanny who brings a family together. The film — a sort of labor of love for Walt — became a hit with critics and the public alike and went on to win five Academy Awards.

Walt had his eye on the original novel as a project for the studio for two decades, when he first spotted his daughter Diane reading it. In his excellent biography of Walt, Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas picks up the story:

Walt read the book and recognized immediately that it was Disney material. The author, P. L. Travers, didn’t agree. She was an Australian lady who had lived in England and had taken her son to New York to escape the London Blitz of World War II. Walt asked Roy, who was going to New York in early 1944, to call on Mrs. Travers and express the company’s interest in acquiring the Mary Poppins stories.


Walt followed up Roy’s visit with a letter to Mrs. Travers inviting her to visit the studio and discuss what kind of production she had in mind. She remained interested but noncommittal. That continued to be her attitude over the years… It was not until 1960 that Mrs. Travers finally agreed to deal with the Disneys. By this time, Walt’s eagerness for the property had grown so acute that he paid an extraordinary price: he gave her approval of the screen treatment.


Mrs. Travers made two journeys to Burbank to view the storyboards for Mary Poppins. She objected to many of the liberties that had been taken with her characters, and adjustments had to be made. Walt Disney exercised his own considerable powers of persuasion to win Mrs. Travers’s approval. By the time she returned to England, she seemed convinced that the Disney innovations had originated in her own books.


This Christmas, Disney will release a film that tells this remarkable tale. Saving Mr. Banks will star Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers. John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Blind Side) takes the reins as director. The official synopsis summarizes the story:

When Travers travels from London to Hollywood in 1961 to finally discuss Disney’s desire to bring her beloved character to the motion picture screen (a quest he began in the 1940s as a promise to his two daughters), Disney meets a prim, uncompromising sexagenarian not only suspect of the impresario’s concept for the film, but a woman struggling with her own past. During her stay in California, Travers’ reflects back on her childhood in 1906 Australia, a trying time for her family which not only molded her aspirations to write, but one that also inspired the characters in her 1934 book.

None more so than the one person whom she loved and admired more than any other—her caring father, Travers Goff, a tormented banker who, before his untimely death that same year, instills the youngster with both affection and enlightenment (and would be the muse for the story’s patriarch, Mr. Banks, the sole character that the famous nanny comes to aide). While reluctant to grant Disney the film rights, Travers comes to realize that the acclaimed Hollywood storyteller has his own motives for wanting to make the film—which, like the author, hints at the relationship he shared with his own father in the early 20th Century Midwest.


Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, B. J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, and Rachel Griffiths round out the cast.

For the first time, the company will portray Walt Disney as a character. The question remains: will Tom Hanks be too…well…Tom Hanks to play Walt Disney, or will we believe him as Walt? (Based on my first impression, by the end of the trailer, I had forgotten it was Tom Hanks in the picture.)

Disney has released the first trailer for Saving Mr. Banks. The Guardian summarizes it this way:

The trailer suggests antagonism between Travers and Disney over the adaptation will play an important part, although there are hints of a warming, if awkward, friendship between the two. … Travers was notoriously unhappy with many aspects of the Robert Stevenson-directed film, with her precise ideas about the characters in her book making life difficult for the adapters.

The trailer looks amazing — lovingly done, as only Disney can do with both its founder and one of its legacy properties. Emma Thompson conveys Travers’ disapproval well: I love the way she says, “No no no no no…” when an idea doesn’t quite go her way. The supporting cast looks excellent as well. I can’t wait to see the finished product this December.

What will Disney fans think of the story behind Saving Mr. Banks? How will they react to the portrayal of Walt Disney — and other legendary Disney figures? Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn will present highlights from the film along with others on the studio’s fall and winter slate on August 10 at Disney’s annual D23 Expo in Anaheim (imagine a Disney-only version of Comic-Con).


After that, all that’s left is to gauge Julie Andrews’ and Dick Van Dyke’s reactions…

Here’s the trailer:


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