A better Mary Poppins

Before I had ever seen an opera, I already had experience with adaptation. I had read Mary Poppins.

And then I encountered the Disney film. Julie Andrews didn’t really seem anything like the character in the book. I was young, so I didn’t have stipulations. I just knew that the film seemed too Hollywood to me, too American. Too commercial.

I didn’t like any of the songs very much. “Supercali….”…what? I suppose I did like the concluding number “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”. It had a very hopeful positive feeling to it. But other parts of the film seemed more Disney than Travers.

Fast forward to another millennium. Tonight I watched a film on PPV called Saving Mr Banks, taking us through the drama of Disney’s adaptation of PL Travers’ classic book. The first hour was excruciating, as Travers resists Disney’s suit, making endless stipulations about how the film of her book must appear.  It was so painful because I always dislike this kind of negativity, but also because i love her book.

I had to wonder: how could they understand the way I felt so perfectly? Here I was, so many years later, reminded that while Disney’s adaptation had won five Academy Awards and that many people had loved it no I most emphatically did not love it at all. Nope. And here I was, listening to song after song that I disliked.

And so too, it seemed, did PL Travers.  Wow we had so much in common.

I am not going to spoil this film for you, but wow, here I was wondering how we were going to get to the end. Travers, as portrayed by Emma Thompson, is very difficult, very picky about how her book is to be filmed. Tom Hanks is a more ebullient Walt Disney than the one I recall from television, but of course we don’t know what the private Disney was really like, do we…?

There’s a genre of film whose name I couldn’t tell you. Amadeus might be an example, at least for those few minutes when it takes Don Giovanni, and then deconstructs it as a personal drama explaining Mozart’s life with the help of Salieri’s narrated analysis.  The film of Wizard of Oz does this too, in creating the whole dream built using the farm-hands.  And so, too, in this case. Director John Lee Hancock and writers Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith give us a rationale for the relationships and the writing of the book.  Mary Poppins, Mr Banks (the father in the book) and the family dynamics of the book are illuminated gradually.

The usual strong performances from Colin Farrell & Paul Giamatti add another dimension. I won’t tell you how we get to the end, only that we get there, complete with Disney’s Mary Poppins, a film that I still don’t like very much. But I found myself thinking that this –Saving Mr Banks—manages to tell the same story. In a real sense it’s Mary Poppins: that is, a better Mary Poppins than the one Disney made.

And that made me smile.

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