Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. Saving Mr. Banks

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Saving Mr. Banks

Year: 2013

Budget:  $35 million

Box office: $117.9 million

Plot: The film, set in 1961, begins in London. Agent Diarmund Russell urges financially strapped author Pamela “P. L.” Travers to travel to Los Angeles and meet with Walt Disney. Disney has pursued the film rights to her Mary Poppins stories for twenty years, having promised his daughters to produce a film based on the books. Travers has steadfastly resisted Disney’s efforts, fearing what he will do to her character. Having written nothing new and her book royalties dried up, she risks losing her house. Russell reminds her that Disney has agreed to two major stipulations (no animation and unprecedented script approval) before she finally agrees to go.

Flashbacks depict Travers’ difficult childhood in Allora, Queensland, Australia in 1906, which became the inspiration for much of Mary Poppins. Travers idolized her loving, imaginative father, Travers Robert Goff, but his chronic alcoholism resulted in his repeated dismissals, strained her parents’ marriage, and caused her distressed mother’s attempted suicide. Goff died from tuberculosis when Travers was seven years old. Prior to his death, her mother’s stern, practical sister came to live with the family and later served as Travers’s main inspiration for the Mary Poppins character.

In Los Angeles, Travers is annoyed by what she perceives as the city’s unreality and the overly-perky inhabitants, personified by her friendly 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 that 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 children’s estranged father, is depicted, insisting that he is neither cold nor cruel. Gradually, the team grasp how deeply personal the Mary Poppins stories are to Travers and how many of the characters were inspired by her past.

The team acknowledges that Travers has valid criticisms and make changes although 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 collaborating with the team. Soon afterward, however, Travers is enraged to discover an animation sequence has been added. She confronts Disney over this and returns home.

Disney learns that “P. L. Travers” is a pen name, taken from Travers’ father’s given name. Her real name is Helen Goff, and she is Australian, not English. That gives Disney new insight into Travers, and he follows her to London. Arriving unexpectedly at her home, Disney shares his own less-than-ideal childhood but stresses the healing value of his art. He urges Travers not to let deeply-rooted past disappointments dictate the present. That night, after Disney has left, Travers finally relents, granting the film rights to Disney.

Three years later, in 1964, Travers has begun writing another Mary Poppins story, while 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.

Animation:Walt Disney Animation Studios reproduced animation of Tinker Bell for the scene that recreates an opening segment from an episode of Walt Disney Presents.

Background: 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 and Kelly Marcel writing the screenplay. 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. 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.

 Walt Disney Pictures’ president of production, Sean Bailey, CEO Bob Iger and Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn 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, Disney acquired the screenplay in February 2012 and joined the production with Alison Owen, Ian 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.

“I thought the script was a fair portrayal of Walt as a mogul but also as an artist and a human being. But I still had concerns that it could be whittled away. I don’t think this script could have been developed within the walls of Disney—it had to be developed outside … I’m not going to say there weren’t discussions, but the movie we ended up with is the one that was on the page.” -John Lee Hancock

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 (a decision that Hanks himself disagreed with) 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, stating that nobody can see him smoking due to the effect it would have on his image. 1

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 interior of the Walt Disney Studios’ Animation Building, the exterior of the Beverly Hills Hotel and Disney’s personal office were recreated. The set was also adorned with Disney’s personal Academy Awards loaned from a Walt Disney World Resort exhibit. 2

 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.

Historical Accuracy:

  • The premise of the script, that Walt Disney had to convince P.L. Travers to hand over the film rights, including the scene in which he finally persuades her, is fictionalized. Disney had already secured the film rights when she arrived to consult with the Disney staff.
  • Disney 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. As such, 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.
  • Travers 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, which is depicted in the film as coaxing Disney himself.
  • 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 never to 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. 3
  • 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 the actress 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.


Tom Hanks returns as Walt Disney. 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.

“I was immediately dry-mouthed by the prospect. It’s just the hardest work that is to be done. There’s a billion hours of video, of Walt performing as Walt Disney, being a great guy. But I found enough actual footage of him in interviews when he’d really like to be done with the subject … When I could find him showing any legitimate kind of consternation, that was worth its weight in gold.”-Tom Hanks

Emma Thompson returns as P.L. Travers. 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. 

“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.” ‐Emma Thompson

Jason Schwartzman as Richard M. Sherman. He frequently collaborates with Wes Anderson, such as Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Isle of Dogs. His other film roles include Slackers, Spun, I Heart Huckabees, Shopgirl, Marie Antoinette, Funny People, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,  and Klaus. He also starred as a writer who moonlights as an unlicensed private detective in Bored to Death, and as crime boss Josto Fadda in the fourth season of Fargo. B. J. Novak 4as Robert B. Sherman. Novak was one of the writers and executive producers of The Office in which he also played Ryan Howard. He also appeared as PFC Smithson “The Little Man” Utivich in the film Inglourious Basterds, and Harry J. Sonneborn in The Founder.

Schwartzman and 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.

Colin Farrell as Travers Robert Goff. He made his film debut in The War Zone. He has since appeared in Tigerland, American Outlaws, Phone Booth, S.W.A.T., The Recruit, Minority Report, Daredevil, Intermission, A Home at the End of the World, Alexander, The New World, Miami Vice, Ask the Dust, Cassandra’s Dream, In Bruges, Horrible Bosses, Fright Night, Total Recall, Seven Psychopaths, Dead Man Down, Winter’s Tale, True Detective, The Lobster, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  Farrell has been cast as Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin in The Batman. Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff. She is known for her performances in Suburban Shootout, Jane Eyre, as Alice Morgan in Luther, as Alison Lockhart in  The Affair, as the titular character in Mrs Wilson, and as Marisa Coulter in His Dark Materials. Her film credits include The Lone Ranger, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, and Dark River. Wilson is a three-time Olivier Award nominee and two-time winner, earning the Best Actress for the titular role in Anna Christie, and the Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. 

Paul Giamatti as Ralph. He first garnered attention for his breakout role in Private Parts as Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton. Other credits include Saving Private Ryan, Man on the Moon, Big Momma’s House, Big Fat Liar, American Splendor, Sideways, Win Win  Cinderella Man, The Illusionist, Shoot ‘Em Up, Fred Claus,  The Ides of March, 12 Years a Slave, Love & Mercy, San Andreas, and Straight Outta Compton. He played the titular character in John Adams, which earned him a Golden Globe Award, a Primetime Emmy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award. He stars as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades Jr. in Billions. Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi. He is known for his portrayal of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, for which he was nominated for three consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards from 2001 to 2003, winning in 2001.  Whitford also played Danny Tripp in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; Dan Stark in  The Good Guys; Timothy Carter on  The Mentalist; antagonist Eric Gordon in the film Billy Madison; Arthur Parsons in The Post, Dean Armitage in  Get Out; and Roger Peralta in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In 2015, he won a second Primetime Emmy Award for his role as Marcy in Transparent and later garnered a fifth Primetime Emmy Award nomination for portraying Magnus Hirschfeld in the same series. Since 2018, Whitford has portrayed Commander Joseph Lawrence in The Handmaid’s Tale, for which he won his third Primetime Emmy Award in 2019.

Kathy Baker as Tommie. She made her screen debut in The Right Stuff. Baker also has appeared in  Jacknife, Edward Scissorhands, The Cider House Rules, Cold Mountain, Nine Lives, The Jane Austen Book Club, Last Chance Harvey, Take Shelter, and The Age of Adaline. Baker starred as Dr. Jill Brock on Picket Fences, for which she received three Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series and Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards. She later received three additional nominations and a Primetime Emmy Award for her performances in Touched by an Angel, Boston Public and Door to Door. Rachel Griffiths as Helen “Ellie” Morehead. She began her acting career appearing on the Australian series Secrets before being cast in a supporting role in the comedy Muriel’s Wedding, which earned her an AACTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She appeared in Amy, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Hilary and Jackie. Griffiths portrayed Brenda Chenowith in  Six Feet Under, for which she earned a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in 2002. She subsequently appeared on television as Sarah Walker Laurent on  Brothers & Sisters for which she was nominated for multiple Primetime Emmy Awards. She has also had roles in the films Blow, Ned Kelly, Step Up, Underground: The Julian Assange Story, Hacksaw Ridge, and When We Rise. Onstage, Griffiths appeared in Proof in 2002, which earned her a Helpmann Award, and later made her Broadway debut in a 2011 critically acclaimed production of Other Desert Cities.

Music: 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.

 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”.

Critical Reception:

  • 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 the 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 the 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.”
  • Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian enjoyed Hanks’ role as Disney, suggesting that, despite its brevity, the film would have been largely “bland” without it.
  • 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.

Legacy: 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. 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.

Available on Disney +?: Yes

My take: So why did I pick this one for the last entry? Because it’s him.

Walt was no saint. He was anti-union, and could be a bully. Yet, he created this company that made so much that I love, including Mary Poppins, the movie that I used to dance to as a child.

It’s also about the studio, and the Shermans, and Disneyland.

So this is the last entry, and the main reason is… I wrote about just about everything. All the animated films, the Pixar films, most of the live-action films. 180 entries over four years. Now when a new film comes along I will bring it back to discuss.

I started this because I wanted to contribute to the site and this was something that I felt I could write with some knowledge. We’ve had some fun and a lot of great discussions.

See you real soon.