In 1961, the financially strapped author Pamela "P. L." Travers reluctantly travels from her home in London to Los Angeles to work with Walt Disney at the urging of her agent, Diarmuid Russell. Disney has pursued the film rights to her Mary Poppins stories for twenty years, having promised his daughters that he would produce a film based on them. Travers has steadfastly resisted Disney's efforts because she fears what he would do to her character. However, she has not written anything in a while and her book royalties have dwindled to nothing, so she risks losing her house. Still, Russell has to remind her that Disney has agreed to two major stipulations—no animation and unprecedented script approval—before she agrees to go.
Travers' difficult childhood in Allora, Queensland, Australia, is depicted through flashbacks, and is the inspiration for much of Mary Poppins. Travers idolized her loving, imaginative father, Travers Robert Goff, but his chronic alcoholism resulted in his repeated firings, strained her parents' marriage, and caused her distressed mother to attempt suicide. Goff died at an early age from tuberculosis when Travers was seven years old.
In Los Angeles, Travers is irritated by what she perceives as the city's unreality and the inhabitants' intrusive friendliness, personified by her limousine driver, Ralph. At the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers meets the creative team that are developing Mary Poppins for the screen: screenwriter Don DaGradi, and music composers Richard and Robert Sherman. She finds their presumptions and casual manners highly improper, a view she also holds of the jocular Disney.
Travers' working relationship with Disney and his team is difficult from the outset, with her insistence that Mary Poppins is the enemy of sentiment and whimsy. Disney and his people are puzzled by Travers' disdain for fantasy, given the nature of the Mary Poppins story, as well as Travers' own rich imagination. She particularly objects to how the character George Banks, the estranged father of the children in Mary Poppins' charge, is depicted, insisting that he is neither cold nor cruel. Gradually, they grasp how deeply personal the Mary Poppins stories are to her and how many of the characters were inspired by her past.
The team realize Travers has valid criticisms and make changes, though she becomes increasingly disengaged as painful childhood memories resurface. Seeking to understand what troubles her, Disney invites Travers to Disneyland, which, along with her developing friendship with Ralph, the creative team's revisions to the George Banks character, and the addition of a new song and a different ending, help dissolve Travers' opposition. Her creativity reawakens, and she begins working with the team; however, when Travers discovers that there is to be an animation sequence, she confronts Disney over his broken promise and returns home.
Disney learns that Travers is actually her pen name, taken from her father's given name. Her real name is Helen Goff, and she's actually Australian, not British. This gives Disney new insight into Travers, and he follows her to London. Arriving unexpectedly at her door, Disney tells her that he also had a less-than-ideal childhood, but stresses the healing value of his art. He urges Travers to not let deeply-rooted past disappointments dictate the present. Travers relents and grants Disney the film rights.
Three years later, in 1964, Mary Poppins is to have its world premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Disney has not invited Travers, fearing how she might react with the press watching. Prompted by Russell, Travers shows up unannounced at Disney's office; he reluctantly issues her an invitation. Initially, she watches Mary Poppins with a lack of enthusiasm, particularly during the animated sequences. She gradually warms to the rest of the film, however, becoming deeply moved by the depiction of George Banks' personal crisis and redemption.Emma Thompson as Pamela "P. L." Travers, birth name Helen Goff.
Annie Rose Buckley as seven-year-old Helen, also referred to as "Ginty"
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
Colin Farrell as Travers Robert Goff, Helen's father
Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff, Helen's mother
Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers' chauffeur
Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, co-writer of the screenplay for Mary Poppins
B. J. Novak as Robert B. Sherman, composer and lyricist who co-wrote the film's songs with his brother Richard
Jason Schwartzman as Richard M. Sherman, composer and lyricist
Kathy Baker as Tommie, Disney's executive assistant
Melanie Paxson as Dolly, Disney's secretary
Rachel Griffiths as Ellie, Helen's aunt, who serves as the model for Mary Poppins
Ronan Vibert as Diarmuid Russell
Kristopher Kyer as Dick Van Dyke
Victoria Summer as Julie Andrews
Credits adapted from The New York Times.
In 2002, Australian producer Ian Collie produced a documentary film on P. L. Travers titled The Shadow of "Mary Poppins". During the documentary's production, Collie noticed that there was "an obvious biopic there" and convinced Essential Media and Entertainment to develop a feature film with Sue Smith writing the screenplay. The project attracted the attention of BBC Films, which decided to finance the project, and Ruby Films' Alison Owen, who subsequently hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the screenplay with Smith. Marcel's drafts removed a subplot involving Travers and her son, and divided the story into a two-part narrative: the creative conflict between Travers and Walt Disney, and her dealings with her childhood issues, describing it as "a story about the pain of a little girl who suffered, and the grown woman who allowed herself to let go". Marcel's version, however, featured certain intellectual property rights of music and imagery which would be impossible to use without permission from The Walt Disney Company. "There was always that elephant in the room, which is Disney," Collie recalled. "We knew Walt Disney was a key character in the film and we wanted to use quite a bit of the music. We knew we'd eventually have to show Disney." In early 2010, Robert B. Sherman provided producer Alison Owen with an advance copy of a salient chapter from his then upcoming book release, Moose: Chapters From My Life. The chapter entitled, "'Tween Pavement and Stars" contained characterizations and anecdotes which proved seminal to Marcel's script rewrite, in particular, the anecdote about there not being the color red in London. In July 2011, while attending the Ischia Film Festival, Owen met with Corky Hale, who offered to present the screenplay to Richard M. Sherman. Sherman read the screenplay and gave the producers his support. Later that year, Marcel and Smith's screenplay was listed in Franklin Leonard's The Black List, voted by producers as one of the best screenplays that were not in production.
In November 2011, Walt Disney Pictures' president of production, Sean Bailey, was informed by executive Tendo Nagenda of Marcel's existing script. Realizing that the screenplay included a depiction of the studio's namesake, Bailey conferred with Disney CEO Bob Iger and Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, the latter of whom referred to the film as a "brand deposit," a term adopted from Steve Jobs. Together, the executives discussed the studio's potential choices; purchase the script and shut the project down, put the film in turnaround, or co-produce the film themselves. With executive approval, the studio acquired the screenplay in February 2012 and joined the production with Owen, Collie and Philip Steuer as producers, and Christine Langan, Troy Lum, Andrew Mason, and Paul Trijbits serving as executive producers. John Lee Hancock was hired to direct the film later that same month.
Iger subsequently contacted Tom Hanks to consider playing the role of Walt Disney, which would become the first-ever depiction of Disney in a mainstream film. Hanks accepted the role, viewing it as "an opportunity to play somebody as world-shifting as Picasso or Chaplin". Hanks made several visits to the Walt Disney Family Museum and interviewed some of Disney's former employees and family relatives, including his daughter Diane Disney Miller. The film was subsequently dedicated to Disney Miller, who died shortly before it was released. In April 2012, Emma Thompson entered final negotiations to star as P. L. Travers, after the studio was unable to secure Meryl Streep for the part. Thompson said that the role was the most difficult one that she has played, describing Travers as "a woman of quite eye-watering complexity and contradiction." "She wrote a very good essay on sadness, because she was, in fact, a very sad woman. She'd had a very rough childhood, the alcoholism of her father being part of it and the attempted suicide of her mother being another part of it. I think that she spent her whole life in a state of fundamental inconsolability and hence got a lot done." Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, B. J. Novak, and Ruth Wilson were cast in July 2012.
With Disney's backing, the production team was given access to 36 hours of Travers' audio recordings of herself, the Shermans, and co-writer Don DaGradi that were produced during the development of Mary Poppins, in addition to letters written between Disney and Travers from the 1940s through the 1960s. Richard M. Sherman also worked on the film as a music supervisor and shared his side of his experiences working with Travers on Mary Poppins. Initially, Hancock had reservations about Disney's involvement with the film, believing that the studio would edit the screenplay in their co-founder's favor. However, Marcel admitted that the studio "specifically didn't want to come in and sanitize it or change Walt in any way." Hancock elaborated, "I was still worried that they might want to chip away at Walt a little bit...I thought the portrayal of Walt was fair and human so I came in and they said, ‘No, we like it.’ But still, every step of the way, I had my fist balled up behind my back ready to fight in case it happened, but it didn’t." Although the filmmakers did not receive any creative interference from Disney regarding Walt Disney's depiction, the studio did request that they omit any onscreen inhalation of cigarettes due to the company's policy of not directly depicting smoking in films released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner, and to avoid receiving an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Instead, Disney is shown extinguishing a lit cigarette in one scene, and his notorious smoker's cough is heard off-screen several times throughout the film.
Principal photography began in September 2012 in Los Angeles. Although some scenes were originally planned to be shot in Queensland, Australia, all filming, except for two establishing shots in London, took place in the Southern California area, including the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, Heritage Square Museum in Montecito Heights, Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino, Courthouse Square at Universal Studios, and the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The largest set built for the film was the interior of the Walt Disney Studios' Animation Building, which production designer Michael Corenblith referred to as "a character in the story". The exterior of the Beverly Hills Hotel and Disney's personal office were also recreated, with the Langham Huntington in Pasadena acting as an interior double for the Beverly Hills Hotel. To ensure authenticity, Corenblith used photographs and a furniture display from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as references for Disney's office; the set was also adorned with Disney's personal Academy Awards loaned from a Walt Disney World Resort exhibit. For the Disneyland sequences, scenes were shot during the early morning with certain areas cordoned off during the park's operation, including the park's entrance courtyard, Main Street U.S.A., Sleeping Beauty Castle, Fantasyland, and the King Arthur Carrousel attraction. Extra roles were filled by Disneyland Resort cast members. In order for the park to be portrayed accurately in the story's time period, Corenblith had the Main Street storefronts redressed to reflect their 1961 appearance; post-1961 attractions were kept obstructed so they would not show up on camera. To recreate the original film's premiere at the Chinese Theatre, set designers closed Hollywood Boulevard and recreated the street and theater to resemble their 1964 appearances. After scheduled filming in Australia had been scrapped, such cinematographer John Schwartzman compared the landscape of Queensland with that of rural Southern California, and realized that both had similar traits in natural lighting.
Emma Thompson prepared for her role by studying Travers' own recordings conducted during the development of Mary Poppins, and also styled her natural hair after Travers', due to the actress's disdain for wigs. To accurately convey Walt Disney's midwestern dialect, Tom Hanks listened to archival recordings of Disney and practiced the voice while reading newspapers. Hanks also grew his own mustache for the role, which underwent heavy scrutiny, with the filmmakers going so far as to match the dimensions of Hanks' mustache to that of Disney's. Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak worked closely with Richard M. Sherman during pre-production and filming. Sherman described the actors as "perfect talents" for their roles as himself and his brother, Robert. Costume designer Daniel Orlandi had Thompson wear authentic jewelry borrowed from the Walt Disney Family Museum, and ensured that Hanks' wardrobe included the Smoke Tree Ranch emblem from the Palm Springs property embroidered on his neckties, which Disney always wore. The design department also had to recreate several of the costumed Disney characters as they appeared in the 1960s. Filming lasted nine weeks and was completed on November 22, 2012. Walt Disney Animation Studios reproduced an animation of Tinker Bell for the scene that recreates an opening segment from an episode of Walt Disney Presents.
Thomas Newman composed the film's original score. In regards to incorporating his own musical style to the film's period setting, Newman stated that "there was room for a real tune-based score here that could reflect the basic joy in that kind of writing that the Sherman Brothers brought to Mary Poppins. Newman, however, refrained from creating an "adaptation score" of the Shermans' music from the original film. Newman's process of scoring the film included playing themes to filmed scenes, so that he could "listen to what the music does to an image", and not wanting to "clutter the proceedings with music." The flashback sequences to Travers' childhood provided the most work for Newman. He explains that, "You had to turn on a dime to make the transition back to the 'present,' when Travers and the Sherman brothers are working on the script for Mary Poppins. And that was fun, but also musically challenging.” For the score's instrumentation, Newman primarily employed a string orchestra with some woodwinds and brass, as well as including piano and hammered instruments that were "appropriate to the time period", such as dulcimers. The film's score was recorded at the Newman Scoring Stage in Los Angeles, while the cast recorded several of the Shermans' songs at Capitol Studios for use as playback during the film's diegetic music scenes, including "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank", "Feed the Birds", and "Let's Go Fly a Kite". Walt Disney Records released two editions of the soundtrack on December 10, 2013: a single-disc and a two-disc digipak deluxe edition, containing original demo recordings by the Shermans and selected songs from Mary Poppins.
Saving Mr. Banks depicts several events that differ from recorded accounts. The premise of the script—that Walt Disney had to convince P.L. Travers to hand over the film rights, including the scene when he finally persuades her—is fictionalized, as Disney had already secured the film rights (subject to Travers' approval of the script) when Travers arrived to consult with the Disney staff. Disney, in fact, left Burbank to vacation in Palm Springs a few days into Travers' visit and was not present at the studio when several of the film's scenes depicting him to be present actually took place. Therefore, many of the dialogue scenes between Travers and Disney are adapted from letters, telegrams, and telephone correspondence between the two. Although Travers was assigned a limousine driver, the character of Ralph is fictionalized and intended to be an amalgamation of the studio's drivers. In real life, Disney story editor Bill Dover was assigned as Travers' guide and companion during her time in Los Angeles.
The film also depicts Travers coming to amicable terms with Disney, implying her approval of his changes to the story. In reality, she never approved of softening the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins' character, remained ambivalent about the music, and never came around to the use of animation. Disney overruled her objections to portions of the final film, citing contract stipulations that he had final cut privilege. Travers had initially not been invited to the film's premiere, until she "embarrassed" a Disney executive into extending her an invitation; this is depicted in the film as coaxing Disney himself. After the premiere, she reportedly approached Disney and told him that the animated sequences had to be removed. Disney dismissed her request, saying, "Pamela, the ship has sailed."
Although the film portrays Travers as being emotionally moved during the premiere of Mary Poppins—overlaid with images of her childhood, which is implied to be attributed to her feelings about her father—co-screenwriter Kelly Marcel and several critics note that in real life, Travers' show of emotion was actually a result of anger and frustration over the final product. Reportedly, Travers felt that in the end, the film betrayed the artistic integrity of her work and story's characters. Resentful over what she considered poor treatment at the hands of Walt Disney, Travers vowed to never permit Disney to adapt her other novels for any purpose. Travers' last will bans all American adaptation of her works to any form of media. According to the Chicago Tribune, Disney was "indulging in a little revisionist history with an upbeat spin", adding, "the truth was always complicated" and that Travers subsequently viewed the film multiple times.
English writer Brian Sibley found Travers still gun-shy from her experiences with Disney when he was hired in the 1980s to write a possible Mary Poppins sequel. Sibley reported that Travers told him, "I could only agree if I could do it on my own terms. I'd have to work with someone I trust." Regardless, while watching the original film together—the first time Travers had seen it since the premiere—she became excited at times and thought certain aspects were excellent, while others were unappealing. The sequel never went to production, and when approached to do a stage adaptation in the 1990s, she only acquiesced on the condition that English-born writers and no one from the film production were to be directly involved with the musical's development.
The film also depicts Travers' Aunt Ellie (her mother's sister), who comes to help the family when her father becomes terminally ill, as Travers' model for Mary Poppins, with her even using several of Poppins' catchphrases from the film. In fact, Travers identified her great aunt Helen Morehead (her mother's aunt), as the model for Poppins.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures released a trailer for the film on July 10, 2013. Saving Mr. Banks held its world premiere at the London Film Festival on October 20, 2013. On November 7, 2013, Walt Disney Pictures held the film's U.S. premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre during the opening night of the 2013 AFI Film Festival, the same location where Mary Poppins premiered. The original film was also screened for its 50th anniversary.
Saving Mr. Banks also served as the Gala Presentation at the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival on November 13, and was screened at the AARP Film Festival in Los Angeles on November 17, as Disney heavily campaigned Saving Mr. Banks for Academy Awards consideration. On December 9, 2013, the film was given an exclusive corporate premiere in the Main Theater of the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank. The film was released theatrically in the United States on December 13, 2013, and in general theatrical release on December 20.
Saving Mr. Banks grossed $83.3 million in North America and $34.6 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $117.9 million, against a budget of $35 million. The film grossed $9.3 million in its opening weekend in the United States, finishing 5th at the box office behind The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ($31.5 million), Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues ($26.2 million), Frozen ($19.6 million), and American Hustle ($19.1 million).
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment released Saving Mr. Banks on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download on March 18, 2014. The film debuted at No. 2 in Blu-ray and DVD sales in the United States according to Nielsen's sales chart. The home media release included three deleted scenes that were cut from the film.
Saving Mr. Banks received positive reviews from film critics, with major praise directed to the acting; particularly Thompson, Hanks, and Farrell's performances. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 79% based on 237 reviews, with an average rating of 7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Aggressively likable and sentimental to a fault, Saving Mr. Banks pays tribute to the Disney legacy with excellent performances and sweet, high-spirited charm." Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 65 out of 100, based on 46 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Leslie Felprin of The Hollywood Reporter praised the film as an "affecting if somewhat soft-soaped comedy drama, elevated by excellent performances." The Reporter wrote that "Emma Thompson takes charge of the central role of P. L. Travers with an authority that makes you wonder how anybody else could ever have been considered." Scott Foundas of Variety wrote that the film "has all the makings of an irresistible backstage tale, and it's been brought to the screen with a surplus of old-fashioned Disney showmanship...", and that Tom Hanks's portrayal captured Walt Disney's "folksy charisma and canny powers of persuasion — at once father, confessor and the shrewdest of businessmen." Overall, he praised the film as "very rich in its sense of creative people and their spirit of self-reinvention."
The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday rated the film three out of four stars, writing: "Saving Mr. Banks doesn't always straddle its stories and time periods with the utmost grace. But the film — which John Lee Hancock directed from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith — more than makes up for its occasionally unwieldy structure in telling a fascinating and ultimately deeply affecting story, along the way giving viewers tantalizing glimpses of the beloved 1964 movie musical, in both its creation and final form." The New York Times' A. O. Scott gave a positive review, declaring the film as "an embellished, tidied-up but nonetheless reasonably authentic glimpse of the Disney entertainment machine at work."
Mark Kermode writing for The Observer awarded the film four out of five stars, lauding Thompson's performance as "impeccable", elaborating that "Thompson dances her way through Travers' conflicting emotions, giving us a fully rounded portrait of a person who is hard to like but impossible not to love." Michael Phillips of Chicago Tribune felt similarly, writing: "Thompson's the show. Each withering put-down, every jaundiced utterance, lands with a little ping." In regard to the screenplay, he wrote that "screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith treat everyone gently and with the utmost respect." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also gave the film three out of four stars and equally commended the performances of the cast.
Alonso Duralde of TheWrap described the film as a "whimsical, moving and occasionally insightful tale ... director John Lee Hancock luxuriates in the period detail of early-’60s Disney-ana". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" grade, explaining that "the trick here is how perfectly Thompson and Hanks portray the gradual thaw in their characters' frosty alliance, empathizing with each other's equally miserable upbringings in a beautiful three-hankie scene late in the film." Kenneth Turan of Los Angeles Times wrote that the film "does not strictly hew to the historical record where the eventual resolution of this conflict is concerned," but admitted that it "is easy to accept this fictionalizing as part of the price to be paid for Thompson's engaging performance."
David Gritten of The Daily Telegraph described the confrontational interaction between Thompson and Hanks as "terrific", singling out Thompson's "bravura performance", and calling the film itself "smart, witty entertainment". Kate Muir of The Times spoke highly of Thompson and Hanks's performances. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, however, considered Colin Farrell to be the film's "standout performance". IndieWire's Ashley Clark wrote that the film "is witty, well-crafted and well-performed mainstream entertainment which, perhaps unavoidably, cleaves to a well-worn Disney template stating that all problems—however psychologically deep-rooted—can be overcome." Another staff writer labeled Thompson's performance as her best since Sense and Sensibility, and stated that "she makes the Australian-born British transplant a curmudgeonly delight." Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian enjoyed Hanks' role as Disney, suggesting that, despite its brevity, the film would have been largely "bland" without it.
The film did receive some criticism. Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent gave the film a mixed review, writing: "On the one hand, Saving Mr. Banks (which was developed by BBC Films and has a British producer) is a probing, insightful character study with a very dark undertow. On the other, it is a cheery, upbeat marketing exercise in which the Disney organization is re-promoting one of its most popular film characters." Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle concluded that if the film ""were 100 percent false and yet felt true, that would be fine. But this has the self-conscious whiff, if not of mendacity, then of public relations." Lou Lumenick of The New York Post criticized the accuracy of the film's events, concluding that "Saving Mr. Banks is ultimately much less about magic than making the sale, in more ways than one." American history lecturer John Wills praised the film's attention to detail, such as the inclusion of Travers' original recordings, but doubted that the interpersonal relations between Travers and Disney were as amicable as portrayed in the film. Landon Palmer of Film School Rejects also described several moments where the film had a "shrewd consumption of [the company's] own criticisms", only to later negate them and Disney-fy Travers as a character.
Saving Mr. Banks was nominated for several awards and earned accolades from various organizations, critics' groups and circles, particularly in recognition of Emma Thompson. The film received five nominations at the 67th British Academy Film Awards, including Best British Film, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, Best Film Music, and Best Costume Design.
The film received a Best Original Score nomination at the 86th Academy Awards, where—despite not earning a nomination—the film was widely considered by pundits to be a front-runner for Best Picture and Best Actress. The film also received single nominations at the 71st Golden Globe Awards and 20th Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Thompson was nominated for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, respectively. Additionally, Thompson won both the Empire Award for Best Actress and the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress for her performance, while the film itself was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the year's top 10 films. Saving Mr. Banks was named by the American Film Institute as one of the top ten films of 2013.