If Saving Mr. Banks Is As Good as The Script…

This morning I finally got around to reading Kelly Marcel‘s script of Saving Mr. Banks, the story of the contentious script collaboration between Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) during the development of Disney’s Mary Poppins film, which came out to great success and acclaim in 1964.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney as Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in John Lee Hancock and Kelly Marcel’s Saving Mr. Banks (Disney, 12.20).

The script, which appeared on the 2011 Black List, is so wise and clean and well-crafted that you can hear Hanks and Thompson say the lines as you read them. It seems highly likely that Thompson will end up as a lead contender for Best Actress; Hanks will almost surely be nominated for playing Uncle Walt, although there might be a question as to whether his performance belongs in the lead or supporting category.

No one knows how the film will turn out as a whole, but the director, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie, The Alamo), is probably the most skilled guy in the business when it comes to giving G or PG-rated or family-friendly material a certain echo-y gravitas, so don’t be surprised if Saving Mr. Banks ends up as a Best Picture contender.

It also seems as if a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Marcel is all but assured. The writing is so skilled, assured and articulate about conflict and the creative process. It’s mostly about Thompson’s Travers (Hanks’ Disney is a co-lead, but his screen time is almost that of a supporting character). The script is split between the present (1961, when Travers went to Los Angeles to collaborate on the Poppins screenplay) and her childhood past in 1907 Australia as she witnessed her banker father, Robert Goff Travers (Colin Farrell), suffer through profesional and financial hell. Her father was the model for Mary Poppins’ brusquely-mannered employer, Mr. Banks.

About 40% to 45% of the film is set in 1907 Australia, and 55% to 60% happens in 1961 Los Angeles and London, but the percentages might be closer than that.

Kelly Marcel

For Travers, Mary Poppins is not about whimsy and fantasy but the difficulties of real adult life and the complex and shadowed fate that awaits all children. For her Poppins is personal — partly a story of her father’s anguish — and is definitely not about sugar-coating, and so while she needs the money, she despises the idea of turning an obviously fanciful and yet lamenting personal tale into a semi-animated Disney “family film.” Marcel’s script conveys an experience familiar to all screenwriters and filmmakers, about the occasional frustration and anguish of translating a work of great personal meaning into a commercial motion picture, and about the dilutions and compromises and (when a family film is being made) sugar-fizz stirrings that are sometimes part of the process.

Just read this portion of an argument that happens between Disney and Travers about the tone of the Poppins script:

Some other pics I’ve assembled:

(l. to r.) Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, P.L. Travers at Mary Poppins premiere in 1964.

From the Mary Poppins Wiki page: “According to the 40th Anniversary DVD release of the film in 2004, Walt Disney first attempted to purchase the film rights to Mary Poppins from P. L. Travers as early as 1938 but was rebuffed because Travers did not believe a film version of her books would do justice to her creation. In addition, Disney was known at the time primarily as a producer of cartoons and had yet to produce any major live-action work. For more than 20 years, Disney periodically made efforts to convince Travers to allow him to make a Poppins film.

“He finally succeeded in 1961, although Travers demanded and got script approval rights. Planning the film and composing the songs took about two years. Travers objected to a number of elements that actually made it into the film. Rather than original songs, she wanted the soundtrack to feature known standards of the Edwardian period in which the story is set. She also objected to the animated sequence. Disney overruled her, citing contract stipulations that he had final say on the finished print.

“The film changed the book story line in a number of places. For example, Mary, when approaching the house, controlled the wind rather than the other way around. As another example, the father, rather than the mother, interviewed Mary for the nanny position. Much of the Travers – Disney correspondence is part of the Travers collection of papers in the Mitchell Library of New South Wales, Australia. The relationship between Travers and Disney is detailed in Mary Poppins She Wrote, a biography of Travers, by Valerie Lawson. The biography is the basis for two documentaries on Travers, The Real Mary Poppins and Lisa Matthews’ The Shadow of Mary Poppins.”

  • BudBrigmanBackOnTheAir

    I wonder if Hanks could be nominated twice this year? For this and Captain Phillips?

  • Perfect Tommy

    Read “Mary Poppins” to our kids, and this is one of those cases (like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Jaws” and “The Godfather”) where the movie was much better than the book.

  • Damn, this reads amazing. I can’t wait!

  • Arthur Crittare


  • Perfect Tommy

    I like that the woman who played Nanny McPhee & Nanny G is playing Travers.

    • Yes, this. … Emma will be PERFECT for this part. And, yes, while Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins have their similarities, I think McPhee is a bit more inclined to be teaching about real-world lessons and harsh realities than Poppins. ..

  • Kat

    I always preferred the book to the movie (and I do love the movie), and to see the dialogue above gives me a lot of hope for this film.

    I consider Emma Thompson to be practically unimpeachable (regardless of the quality of the film she’s in), so I would have gotten around to seeing this; but now, I’ll want to see it on the big screen.

  • DukeSavoy

    Travers limned the darkness in MP. This gets it right: http://youtu.be/10RHyLjrDCk

  • RoyBatty Returns

    Even before I scrolled down to find the comparison pic I was thinking “Hanks seems a little puffy to be playing the famously lanky Disney. ROY E. Disney, sure thing.”

    • Deaf Ears

      Great. For once Wells doesn’t comment on somebody’s weight, but the peanut gallery has to “weigh” in. Hanks is more than close enough to give us the essence of the man.

      • RoyBatty Returns

        Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of yet again they are casting someone who has a body at odds with reality, as when the 6 foot DeCaprio was supposed to be the 5’7″ J. Edgar Hoover. Leo was also a tad too trim to be the pudgy American fascist.

    • Yes, couldn’t we have found someone who will die of lung cancer within’ 5 years? Hollywood just doesn’t care about appearance the way it used to.

      • RoyBatty Returns

        Your retort might have been valid if it didn’t ignore these two facts:
        Hanks lost weight for PHILADELPHIA
        Hanks gained weight for LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN.

  • Joshsleeps

    So does this mean 50 Shades of Grey has a shot at being decent? If Marcel really is as good as the hype-machine says she is (and it sounds that way), I could see her taking the premise and structure of that POS and turning it into something wonderful.

  • This makes me wonder what modern films we’ll see potentially fascinating “making of” movies about in a quarter century? … Jaws? Pulp Fiction? Battlefield Earth? The Phantom Menace? …. Or, if you want to get super-duper-meta, how about a movie about the making of Adaptation?

    • Raising_Kaned

      Nobody really cares about the making of Adaptation — and I say this as a pretty huge Charlie Kaufman fan.

      There was more of a mystique about making a movie back in the ’70s — now it’s just basically a bunch of dudes sitting around starting at monitors (either for shooting or editing). So probably Jaws, yes (plus they would get to shoehorn in all that lore about “Bruce” never working when they wanted it to). Star Wars or Empire — maybe even Raiders — easily over TPM (movie was a big deal, but it was 95%…flick’s painfully dull).

      Pulp Fiction is probably one of the few ’90s exceptions where a wide-released “movie about a movie” could potentially be justified (Goodfellas, too). It basically streamlined a bunch of underground indie/underground sensibilities while never dumbing them down — that’s quite a trick. You’d have to find someone to convincingly play a 30 year-old Tarantino, though…that seems likely to be a long and fruitless search.

      • I don’t think the presence of video monitors means a modern film set is ‘a bunch fo dudes sitting around staring at monitors.’ Actors still have to come and read lines and be directed and be lit and, y’know, all that stuff. Granted your casts of thousands and crazy practical effects are rarer now because of CGI.

  • Deaf Ears

    I see two writers credited… what happened to “Sue Smith?”

  • Sounds like “The Player: Disney Platinum Edition”.

  • How long is Rachel Griffiths part? She’s playing Aunt Ellie, the real woman on which the “Mary Poppins” character is based. I always have hope for more Griffths deserved appreciation.

  • Mechanical Shark

    Wow, that actually sounds way better than I initially thought. I don’t think much of Hancock as a director, though, and I wish the project had gone to someone with more of a vision. Hancock’s a competent B- level director at best.

  • Kurtis Boek

    Where can I find this script!? this sounds fantastic.

    Email me if you have it please: boek68@yahoo.com

  • Nikola Šantić

    In “The Wizard of Oz” the movie was much better than the book. CHORWACJA