'Saving Mr. Banks' rescues the complex mind behind 'Mary Poppins'

Wed Dec 11, 2013 1:51pm EST
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By Mary Milliken

BURBANK, California (Reuters) - In the leafy, idyllic setting that is the Disney Studios lot, author P.L. Travers made life hell for writers and composers and Walt Disney himself in a movie that portrays her as a withering, brick wall, toxic nightmare of a woman.

It is not quite the demeanor one would expect from the creator of one of the most beloved of children's books, "Mary Poppins." But Travers was so worried that Disney and his dream factory would ruin her story of the magical, flying British nanny that she subverted their work at every turn during two weeks at the Burbank studios in 1961.

The entertaining push and pull between the acid-tongued Travers and the Disney storytellers is the heart of "Saving Mr. Banks," a film, from Walt Disney Co of course, that opens in limited release in U.S. theaters on Friday and nationwide a week later. It stars Oscar winners Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.

Thompson, in a role that has generated buzz of a best actress Oscar nomination, had no shortage of biographical material from which to pull together her haughty middle-aged Pamela Lyndon Travers.

But six hours of actual recordings of Travers with her Disney writers and songwriters might have revealed the most about her personality and the suffering that lies beneath artistic creation. She cringed at the thought of animation and dancing penguins and even the songs themselves.

"You can hear in the juddering...the distress in it, of course," said Thompson, mimicked Travers' clipped British accent and tone of disdain.

"One of the most revealing things was that, overtly, she was here to cooperate. Covertly, she was here to sabotage, and that was a wonderful thing to play with."

And sabotage she did, though obviously not enough to stop the film, which was released in 1964, three decades after the first "Mary Poppins" book, and went on to win five Oscars.   Continued...

Cast members Emma Thompson (L), Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson (R) attend the film premiere of "Saving Mr. Banks," at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian