Disney’s battle over Mary Poppins revealed

Classic pairing? Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as children’s author PL Travers.

A new film about adapting ‘Mary Poppins’ for the screen shows that Walt Disney’s ideas clashed with those of the fictional nanny’s creator. What can it tell us about children’s entertainment?

‘I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,’ says Emma Thompson in the new film about PL Travers, the author who created the character of Mary Poppins. ‘These books do not lend themselves to prancing and chirping.’

Saving Mr Banks looks behind the scenes at the long battle between Walt Disney, founder of the enduringly successful film and entertainment company that bears his name, and Pamela Travers, a somewhat austere British writer, before he could turn her series of children’s novels into an Oscar-winning all-American musical.

In the end he gets his way: since 1964, children are far more likely to encounter the Banks family’s magical nanny through the film than the books, as she flies in on the East Wind to take up her position in Cherry Tree Lane, in the heart of Edwardian London.

But this first ever film portrait of the man who founded an entertainment business that has come to define Western childhood, is far from uncritical. Reviewers say it is interesting that the company allowed his ideas to be challenged on screen. It is a chance, they say, to consider two different, competing versions of what is good for children, and the role of both books and films in encouraging the young to use their imagination.

The cantankerous Emma Thompson character represents the strict outlook, while Tom Hanks as Disney speaks for the more indulgent attitude: give the children what they want, even – or especially – if it’s silly.

At one point, during her visit to the studios to meet the team working on the songs, dances and script, the writer rails against their use of a ‘made-up word’ in the script. The song-writing duo hurriedly cover up their notes for the song ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ which is now probably the most famous (and the longest) made-up word in entertainment history.

Sugary medicine

Is absorbing the sort of improving messages that Mary Poppins imparts to the Banks children the most important role of children’s entertainment? If so, was PL Travers right to resist the desire of Walt Disney’s Hollywood studio to completely transform her books and create a saccharine confection of roof-top singing, tap-dancing, animation and universally loveable characters? A little bit of sugar may be necessary to make the medicine go down, but too much becomes sickly and unhealthy.

Or does the extraordinary success and longevity of Walt Disney’s business empire prove that he understood the needs of modern children better? Whether in a book or a movie, perhaps a spoonful of sugar is no longer enough, and most stories would reach a larger audience if they allowed any medicinal messages to be coated in a lot of Hollywood syrup?

You Decide

  1. Would your favourite fictional character be ruined for you if they were portrayed ‘cavorting and twinkling’ in a musical?
  2. Is the Disney corporation a good influence on children?

Activities

  1. Watch the trailer, the original movie or read the book: can you explain why PL Travers says Mary Poppins has come to save the family’s father?
  2. Have a look at some of today’s Disney films and other products. Can you design a poster and a logo to give the company a more modern brand identity?

Some People Say...

“Disney is a money-making machine, nothing more.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Hang on, I thought Emma Thompson was a different nanny?
Yes, good point. She also wrote and starred in the Nanny McPhee films, which are based on a series of books about a character called Nurse Matilda. All of these books and films may seem a bit old-fashioned and laced with nostalgia, but entertainment for children is often about a family in trouble rescued by a strong caretaker who teaches them moral lessons and leaves them happier.
Leaves them?
Well yes. Mary Poppins flies off when the wind changes, Nanny McPhee when she decides her charges ‘no longer need her’. Like many traditional fairy stories, these tales are appealing partly because they help us deal with the challenges of growing up and becoming independent. And that’s a pretty timeless theme.

Word Watch

PL Travers
Pamela Travers was born in Australia but emigrated to England in the 1920s, then published her successful Mary Poppins series of novels from the 1930s onwards. She is one of several female authors who have found it an advantage to use initials to disguise their sex on book covers. JK Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter books, did the same.
Walt Disney
Disney was a talented animator who created Mickey Mouse and the other cartoon characters who first made his company successful. During his lifetime he won 22 Oscars and founded Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Mary Poppins was the last successful film that he produced himself.
Cantankerous
Irritable and awkward. Emma Thompson says her husband, the actor Greg Wise, joked that her career shows that behind every successful nanny is an obstreperous woman.

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