If you’re a fan of Disney’s 1964 classic Mary Poppins — and unless your heart is made of stone, you must be — you probably think that getting the magical nanny’s tale onto the screen was pure joy. A jolly holiday. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. You’d be wrong.
The true story behind Mary Poppins, as chronicled in Saving Mr. Banks (rated PG-13), involved bitter creative struggles and a titanic clash of personalities. From the start, author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who gave life to the character in a series of books, feared that Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) would ruin her work. Prickly and strong-willed, she proved a difficult collaborator, to put it mildly. “She was like a hellcat,” says Richard Sherman, who, along with his brother Robert, spent more than a year working on a story line and songs for the movie musical before Travers came out to L.A. from London to weigh in on the film’s development. “She was terrible to us — just very negative and unreceptive. I felt like we were drowning.”
Mary Poppins was a fantasy born out of Travers’ difficult upbringing in Australia and the death of her beloved, alcoholic father (played by Colin Farrell) when she was a girl. For her, Poppins wasn’t just a lovable singing nanny; she represented something precious to be protected at all costs. “She was worried Disney would do just another cartoon movie,” says Valerie Lawson, author of the Travers biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote. “She didn’t think Walt would understand the magic or the mystery.” Thompson says she gets Travers’ resistance: “She’d written Mary Poppins as a way of healing the wounds of her own childhood, so to have [Poppins] turned into someone rather more sprightly and cheerful than she desired was very difficult.”
Despite Travers’ ferocity, Disney — who’d been urged to adapt Mary Poppins by his own daughters — was a nearly impossible man to resist. In the end, his charm and persuasiveness proved the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down. “Walt knew if he could harness that enchantment into one movie, he’d have a classic,” Sherman says. “And that’s exactly what he did.”