The year is 1961.
A wonderful and kind and nice and glorious man named Walt Disney must convince a mean and nasty and crazy woman named P. L. Travers to allow him and his movie studio to do something really nice for his children and your children and everyone’s children. Our hero—call him Walt, everybody does, except P. L. Travers, because she’s mean and nasty and insists on “Mr. Disney”—wants to make a movie out of Travers’s book Mary Poppins, because he promised his kids he would, and a man never backs out on his promise to his kids. P. L. Travers is crazy because she doesn’t want him to do it and tries to sabotage the project by insisting he shouldn’t do it the way he knows it should be done. Unfortunately for all that is wonderful and nice and good, the crazy mean woman owns the rights because she happens to be the creator of Mary Poppins.
This is the plot of Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers. It is a strange plot, because we know that Disney will prevail and the classic movie we’re seeing in chrysalis will, in three years’ time, become a beautiful butterfly starring Julie Andrews—the 25th-most-successful movie ever made. The sketches we see on the wall in the Disney studio office of the songwriting Sherman brothers look exactly like the Edwardian London that would soon appear in Mary Poppins (1964). We watch the Sherman brothers conceive “A Spoonful of Sugar.” We hear one of them play the melody to “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” We are meant to swoon when they and the screenwriter dance with Travers to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Mary Poppins the movie is all there, including the notion of casting Dick Van Dyke as a cockney (which makes no sense, as the Dick Van Dyke Show had yet to air on CBS).
So what’s the point of all this? The point is corporate. The true story of Saving Mr. Banks is this: The Walt Disney Company engaged an indifferent director and two pedestrian screenwriters to create a hagiography of itself—one that elevates its founder to sainthood and defames a strong-willed writer who was guilty only of working to defend her beloved creation against bowdlerization and trivialization.
Travers did come to Los Angeles in 1961 to work with the movie’s creative team for 10 days, during which time she entered all kinds of objections to what they were doing and sought to impose her authorial vision on the project. For this conduct—for Travers’s efforts to keep the film true to her understanding of the characters she had created—the Saving Mr. Banks screenplay by Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel treats her as some kind of authoritarian monster and killjoy.
And it portrays Walt Disney literally without blemish. He is practically perfect in every way. You would think from Saving Mr. Banks that the Disney studio of the early 1960s was a paradise on earth, in which delightfully creative but deeply unpretentious regular folk were producing unaffectedly awe-inspiring work with no conflict or fuss. It may, indeed, have been a lovely place to work—who knows or cares?—but in 1961, the studio was a stagnant pit of mediocrity. The studio’s forays into live-action filmmaking before Mary Poppins were mostly labored, obvious, and embarrassing: They included such cringe-inducing fare as Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Shaggy Dog (1959), and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). Any writer of taste, which Travers was, would have had every reason to worry about how her creations would be handled by a studio with such a lowbrow track record.
Travers spent two decades turning down offers for the movie rights to Mary Poppins before she found herself in sufficiently dire straits to finally consider them. Given her recalcitrance, Disney was compelled to offer her what was then, and would be today, a staggering deal: $100,000 (that would be $800,000 today), plus a cut of the profits, which has presumably netted tens of millions by now to both her and her estate. No doubt she was very unpleasant to deal with, but she was proved right: The Disney version of Mary Poppins poured five tons of sugar over her strange and singular story of a nanny, her charges, and the hapless family for which she works.