The film begins in Australia, 1906. A young girl, Ginty (the real name of P.L. Travers) plays make believe in her front yard. A voice begins to sing, "Winds in the East, mist coming in, like something is brewing, about to begin." This is the same overture that begins Mary Poppins. In London in 1961, financially struggling author Pamela "P. L." Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly agrees to travel to Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) at the urging of her agent Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert). Her home office reveals she has already found success as the author of the Mary Poppins series. The doorbell rings and she finds Diarmiud Russell, her agent. They talk in her living room. She tells him she's cancelled the car because she no longer needs a ride to the airport, having changed her mind about giving up the rights to her story. Diarmuid points out she has a verbal agreement and can be sued but she replies by saying she has no money for him to claim. He confirms this as he reminds her that sales have dried up and there are no more royalties -- and that she has just recently reached terms after 20 years of being pursued -- no animation, script approval. To keep her house, Pamela agrees to venture to Los Angeles to hear the studio out but promises to leave the papers unsigned if she's not happy with their interpretation. In 1906, we meet Ginty's three-year-old sister, Biddy, and her delicate mother, Margaret. Ginty is playing with her father, as usual. They all hold suitcases and say goodbye to the staff that used to take care of their house; they now walk on foot throughout town to get to the train station. Travers turns it into a game but his wife is heartbroken. They finally take the train to its very last stop, Allora, a rundown city.
In 1961, Pamela is on the plane and awakes with a jerk from her memory. When she arrives at LAX, she exits the plane and finds a driver holding a sign with her name and "Walt Disney Presents." This is the first time we've heard it is Disney that wants her story and not the other major studios. Her driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti) greets her enthusiastically, a huge contrast from her grumpy persona. As they drive in his town car, Ralph optimistically talks about the sunny day and how, outside, it smells like jasmine; Pamela thinks it's more like chlorine and sweat. He tries to make her comfortable but she finds him irritating and raises the screen to separate her from him. He is unfazed.
Pamela arrives at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The porter offers to help her unpack but she tells him if wants to handle ladies' garments, he should get a job in a launderette. He leaves, without a tip, and Pamela then becomes horrified at all the gifts Walt Disney has had put in her room, to welcome her. Flowers, champagne, a fruit basket, Disney merchandise. But her biggest concern is the pears in the fruit basket, so she plucks them all out.
Cut to a flashback of the Goff family (PL's real last name) settling into their Allora house. It is a rundown shack on barren land, obviously heartbreaking for Margaret (Ginty's mother). But Travers calls it a palace and boasts that they now have chickens and in this smaller house, Ginty will get to SHARE a bedroom.
In the current day, Pamela walks to the balcony and throws the pears she had plucked from the fruit basket into the hotel pool. She then goes back in her room and gathers up all the Disney paraphernalia, shoving it all into a closet, along with a giant stuffed Mickey Mouse that's been left on the bed. She tells it, "You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety." She is clearly nervous about Walt Disney being the one to adapt her stories into a movie.
The next morning, Ralph picks Pamela up at the hotel. He is friendly, gleeful about how sunny the day is again. She mocks him for getting excited that the sun has come out as if she was in somehow responsible, reminding him it's California. He replies, cheerfully, "It certainly is!" She gets in the car and says she'd rather be accountable for the rain. He tells her that's sad and she tells him, "The rain brings life." He tells her, "So does the sun" but she tells him to be quiet.
Pamela unpacks her bag and turns on the hotel television. There, she stumbles upon The Wonderful World of Disney Show with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) hosting. She quickly turns off the TV. Disney has been courting Travers for 20 years, seeking to acquire the film rights to her Mary Poppins stories, on account of his daughters' request to make a film based on the character. Travers, however, has been extremely hesitant toward letting Disney bring her creation to the screen because he is known primarily as a producer of animated films, which Travers openly disdains. Her youth in Allora, Queensland in 1906 is depicted through flashbacks, and is shown to be the inspiration for much of Mary Poppins. Travers was very close to her handsome and charismatic father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), who fought a losing battle against alcoholism. Upon her arrival in Los Angeles, Travers is disgusted by what she feels is the city’s unreality, as well as by the naïve optimism and intrusive friendliness of its inhabitants, personified by her assigned limo driver, Ralph. At the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers begins collaborating with the creative team assigned to develop Mary Poppins for the screen, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and music composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak respectively). She finds their presumptions and casual manners highly improper. She meets Disney in person, and he is jocular and familiar from the start, but she remains unfriendly. Travers’ working relationship with the creative team is difficult from the outset, with her insistence that Mary Poppins is the enemy of sentiment and whimsy. Disney and his associates are puzzled by Travers’ disdain and/or disapproval for fantasy, given the fantastical nature of the Mary Poppins story, as well as Travers’ own richly imaginative childhood existence. Travers has particular trouble with the team’s depiction of George Banks, head of the household in which Mary Poppins is employed as a nanny. Travers describes Banks’ characterization as completely off-base and leaves the room distraught. The team begins to grasp how deeply personal the Mary Poppins stories are to Travers, and how many of the work’s characters are directly inspired by Travers’ own past. Travers' collaboration with the team continues, although she is increasingly disengaged as painful memories from her past numb her in the present. Seeking to find out what’s troubling her, Disney suggests the two of them go to Disneyland. The visit to Disneyland, along with Travers’ developing friendship with her limo driver, the creative team’s revisions to the character of George Banks, and the insertion of a new song to close the film, help to soften Travers. Her imagination begins to reawaken, and she engages enthusiastically with the creative team.This progress is upended, however, when Travers realizes that an animation sequence is planned for the film. Travers has been adamant from the start that any animated sequences would be unacceptable. She confronts and denounces a protesting Disney, angrily declaring that she will not sign over the film rights and returns to London. Disney discovers that Travers is writing under a pen name. Her real name is Helen Goff, and she’s actually Australian, not British. Equipped with new insight, he departs for London on the next flight, determined to salvage the film. Appearing unexpectedly at Travers’ residence, Disney opens up—describing his own less-than-ideal childhood, while stressing the healing value of his art—and urges her to shed her deeply-rooted disappointment with the world. All the while, she has viewed him as a "Hollywood King Midas," and he has viewed her as a "cranky, stubborn dame." Despite this, Travers relents and grants him the film rights. Three years later, in 1964, Mary Poppins is nearing its world premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Travers has not been invited because Disney fears that she will give the film negative publicity. Goaded by her agent, Travers returns to Los Angeles, showing up uninvited in Walt Disney’s office, and finagles an invitation to the premiere. She watches Mary Poppins initially with scorn, reacting with particular dismay to the animated sequence. She slowly warms to the film, however, and is ultimately surprised to find herself overcome by emotion, touched by the depiction of George Banks’ redemption, which clearly possesses a powerful personal significance for her. The final song plays, "Let's Go Fly a Kite". Pamela can't help but sing along. She has one final flashback of Ginty at her father's bedside as he tells her "I will never lose you". We cut back to the opening scene of the film, with Ginty sitting in grass, the prologue from Mary Poppins being sung, and the shadow of an umbrella. But this time, we rise higher and higher into the sky.
- Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. To prepare for his role, Hanks took several visits to The Walt Disney Family Museum and interviewed some of Disney's relatives including his daughter Diane Disney Miller. Hanks also stated that Disney's notorious vice of chain smoking (which led to his death from lung cancer in 1966) would be incorporated through the course of the film.
- Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers
- Colin Farrell as Travers Robert Goff
- Paul Giamatti as Travers’ chauffeur, Ralph
- Jason Schwartzman as Richard M. Sherman, musician who co-wrote the film's songs with his brother Robert. Richard himself also taught Jason how to best portray him, and assisted in other points of the film.
- B. J. Novak as Robert B. Sherman, musician who co-wrote the film's songs with his brother Richard.
- Ruth Wilson as Margaret, Travers' mother
- Victoria Summer as Julie Andrews, actress who portrayed Mary Poppins
- Kathy Baker as Tommie, a trusted studio executive
- Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, the co-writer of the 1964 film.
- Rachel Griffiths as Aunt Ellie, Margaret's sister
- Annie Buckley as the young P.L. Travers, nicknamed "Ginty"
- Kimberly D'Armond as Nanny Katie, young Travers' childhood nanny and the inspiration for Katie Nanna
- Michael Swinehart as Porter
- Luke Baines as Waiter
Marcel's screenplay is listed in film executive Franklin Leonard's 2011 Black List, voted by producers, of the best screenplays that are not in production. According to the 40th Anniversary DVD release of the film in 2004, Disney had been working since the 1940s to acquire the rights to the book that was written in 1934, as a promise to his two daughters, but Travers had great misgivings about how her stories would be filmed. She finally relented and allowed Disney to film the story but was so disappointed with the animated portions of the film that she refused to allow any other stories to be filmed.
Although some of the filming was originally to be in Queensland, Australia, all filming took place in the Los Angeles area, including Disneyland and at the Walt Disney Studios. Filming was completed around Thanksgiving 2012, and the film was released on December 20, 2013.
For the Disneyland sequences, Disney blocked off certain parts of the theme park from November 6 to 7, 2012 (such as Disney's California Adventure and Sleeping Beauty Castle, the former of which didn't exist yet). The park's cast members and several hundred guests were also hired as extras.
Saving Mr. Banks holds a 79% 'Certified Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 231 reviews with an average score of 7/10. Critics praised the 'charming nature' of the film, and the believable depictions. However, some criticism was attracted by the 'Disneyfication' of the film, with A.A. Dowd of the AV Club saying:
"The irony of Saving Mr. Banks is that it takes this true story of Hollywood conflict, of artistic integrity pitted against studio moxie, and gives it the same warm-and-fuzzy treatment the company gave Poppins."
The film grossed $83.3m in North America and a further $29.2m in the rest of the world. At $9.3 in the opening weekend, it finished fifth in the box office.
- For the presence of some "disturbing images", the movie was rated PG-13, becoming the eighth Disney film to receive this rating, but the fourth outside of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, after Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, John Carter, and The Lone Ranger, followed by The Finest Hours.
- However, this is the first Disney drama film rated PG-13. All the other PG-13 rated Disney movies are Action/Adventure.
- The Episode of Disneyland, which P. L. Travers watches, in her Hotel Room, is An Adventure in the Magic Kingdom?
- The opening logo instead of the Sleeping Beauty castle is a segmented castle used in the early movies and has "Walt Disney Presents." This is the first movie to have Walt in the logo since shortening in 2011.
- The film premiered one month after the death of Walt Disney's daughter Diane Disney Miller.
- Meryl Streep was courted for the role of P.L. Travers.
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