LOS ANGELES- 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 British author.
Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, who used all his sunny Californian charms to persuade writer P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to allow him to use the story.
The movie, released in the United States on Friday, is tipped as a serious contender for the Oscars, having already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominations for Thompson.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Alamo,” “A Perfect World”), the film recounts the two weeks Travers spent in 1961 at Disney Studios, where Walt battled to win her consent for his whimsical adaptation of her work.
Australian-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 told a pre-release press conference in Beverly Hills.
“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 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 told AFP.
The film doesn’t claim to depict a historically exact account of events. But it is 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,” said Hanks.
The actor, who is also a producer, said the new film is a perfect illustration of the ruthlessness a filmmaker must sometimes have to exert 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,” he told reporters.
“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.