Audiences sat at Burbank’s Walt Disney Studios on Dec. 9 to watch the premiere of “Saving Mr. Banks” — a Disney movie about the making of a Disney movie. As producer Alison Owen put it best, “I feel like I’m inside a Russian doll: There’s dolls inside dolls inside dolls.” What could be more meta? Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, who starred in “Mary Poppins” — the subject of the film — and Richard Sherman, one half of the Sherman Brothers who scored “Poppins,” were in the audience. Sherman was introduced before the screening alongside Jason Schwartzman, who depicts him in “Banks.”
“It’s very unusual for us to do a premiere here on the lot, but we couldn’t resist in this case, inviting you all to a movie studio to watch a movie about making a movie,” Walt Disney chairman Alan Horn said. “This is very special because it was in April of 1961 that our own Walt Disney escorted P.L. Travers around this very lot and the discussions you’re about to see unfold on the screen actually took place.”
The film focuses on the two-week period in 1961 when Travers (played by Emma Thompson), the author of “Mary Poppins,” visited Disney Studios to decide, after being wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for two decades, whether to hand over the film rights to her beloved books.
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According to Hanks, the cantankerous writer would not have been pleased with “Saving Mr. Banks,” just like she wasn’t thrilled with several aspects of “Mary Poppins.”
“She would absolutely hate it,” Hanks said on the red carpet. “She would say, ‘Why don’t you make a movie about the poetry that I wrote?’ She would hate this movie. But that’s what’s great about it. But she’d also be here seeing it.”
Thompson, who thought Travers would enjoy the movie because it centers on her life, said the troubled writer was uncompromising because the magical nanny she conceived was more than just a piece of fiction to her.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
“She as a child was deracinated many times by her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s attempted suicide,” Thompson said. “She never managed to make the ground under her feet feel steady. Mary Poppins was a way of soothing herself in the same way as Mickey Mouse was a way of Walter soothing himself. They’re subatomic characters and there’s only a few of them that survive the adaptations: Mary Poppins, there’s Pooh Bear, there’s Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit.”
Despite the studio’s reputation for going to great lengths to maintain its squeaky-clean image, director John Lee Hancock said Disney didn’t ask for a single change with the film.
“The script was developed completely outside of Disney so once they agreed to do it, I was still worried that they might want to chip away at Walt a little bit,” he said. “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.”
Owen said she was concerned that a particular scene that centered on Travers’ mom was “too dark for Disney.” But there was no push-back from the studio.
“Disney is well known for controlling their brand and wanting to present a certain face to the world, but they were really open,” the producer said. “They wanted us to be as honest as we could be and portray Walt Disney and portray the story and the studio as we saw it, rather than as they may want to be portrayed.”
After watching the film, which closed the London Film Festival in October and opened the AFI Film Festival in November, Karen Dotrice, who played young Jane Banks in “Mary Poppins,” said she now realizes — 50 years after shooting the movie — why Walt Disney was so affectionate toward her.
“He told me to call him uncle Walt; we were really close,” Dotrice said. “One time I got sick with a virus and he came to my house and he was making sure I had all the best doctors. He bought me presents. He brought my mom and my sisters over, which he didn’t have to do, all the way from England. … To be honest, I never understood why. I thought ‘Why was he so nice? That wasn’t in the contract.’ Seeing ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ I realized when Walt was eight — and I was eight when I did ‘Mary Poppins’ — he worked for his dad under horrible circumstances in the snow, in the rain. His dad sounds like a real taskmaster. So I think he had it in his mind that if he was going to employ an eight-year-old girl, that I was going to have this incredible experience.”
This bond between parents and children is the real focus of the movie, Colin Farrell said.
“Rather than the creative process of bringing this to the screen and how volatile it was, it’s really more about the relationship between parents and children and how we carry all those things for the rest of our lives that we saw and that we heard and that we felt,” Farrell said.
Stars, including Jason Segel, Wayne Knight and Paula Abdul, later made their way to the after-party at a café on the studio lot. The interior was decorated with kites, umbrellas and photos and sketches from the actual making of “Mary Poppins.” Revelers snacked on Mickey Mouse-shaped red jello — a coy reference to a scene in “Saving Mr. Banks.”