Film Review – Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks offers few surprises in its story and execution. Being that it’s a Disney production, and chronicles the making of Mary Poppins (1964), we have a good idea of what we’re in store for. But while some may argue it’s a self-congratulatory exercise from The House of Mouse, I found myself being won over by its charisma and the effectiveness of the lead performances. I’ve always enjoyed movies about movies, and given Disney’s history with not letting outsiders see their inner workings, it’s refreshing to see them have a level of openness (even if it’s a controlled level). The story is funny, touching, and willing to explore the darker side of human nature. It doesn’t quite reach the peaks to be a great film, but it does feature all the qualities that make one.
It’s well known that Walt Disney tried to get the rights to the Mary Poppins book for twenty years, each time being turned down by the author, Pamela “P.L.” Travers. We enter the plot in 1961, with Walt (Tom Hanks) embarking on his latest effort to convince Travers (Emma Thompson) to hand the rights over—even having her travel from London to Los Angeles to discuss the matter in person. Travers, highly protective over the characters she created, is so quick to say “no” that it acts as a reflex before the question is even asked. But Walt—being the clever and overwhelmingly friendly personality he was—convinces Travers with a compromise: she can oversee the pre-production of the film, provide her input, and at any time she feels it won’t work out, she can walk away with the rights in hand.
This put Travers in an extremely powerful position, as the whole project hung on her approval of the choices being made. The back and forth between Travers and the filmmakers makes an entertaining battle—their whimsical attitude vs. her pessimistic outlook. She was one stern lady, and had no problem speaking her mind on just about any subject. Her poor driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti) had to put up with her daily complaints about American culture. Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak/Jason Schwartzman) developed the script and music, except Travers did not like where the script was going and hated the idea of it being a musical. She rejected everything from the casting of Dick Van Dyke to the color palette, and wouldn’t entertain the thought of an animated sequence. She demanded all the meetings be tape recorded, so the filmmakers would remember every single note she gave.
These sequences are the most fun in the film, and Thompson plays Travers not as hateful, but very cautious about what’s happening to her creation. The foundation of this leads to the film’s weaker half. We’re given multiple flashbacks to Travers’s childhood in Australia, growing up in meager conditions, and learn of her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell). Goff loved his wife and daughters, and had a particularly strong bond with Pamela (her birth name was Helen Lyndon Goff). However, Goff had a proclivity toward alcohol, which hindered his abilities as a banker and family man. As his health deteriorates, we can see the seeds being planted that turned Helen Lyndon Goff into P.L. Travers. While these scenes are well constructed and acted (Farrell does good work, as does Ruth Wilson, who plays his character’s wife), the ties between the past and present are all too apparent. Director John Lee Hancock (as well as screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) hit the themes too blatantly over the head here. We can see how these childhood events shaped Travers and played a role in the making of Mary Poppins from the get-go. We don’t need an entire narrative explaining something we’re already aware of in the first few minutes.
But much of that is forgiven once we return to 1961 and watch Disney try to convince Travers that he respects and cherishes her work. Tom Hanks doesn’t look like Walt Disney at all, but he is possibly the one actor who can exude the same kind of wholesome likeability. The scenes between Hanks and Thompson showcase two performers playing at two different angles. Their approaches are so different, and yet their clashing styles encompass a weird synchronicity—one performance makes the other one better. Seeing Travers enter this strange world of talking animals and fairy tales is an enjoyable fish out of water set-up, highlighted with Disney taking her on a personal field trip to Disneyland. While we know how all of this is going to end, that doesn’t take away our enthusiasm over watching the characters get there.
Did P.L. Travers like what ended up on screen? The film leaves that a bit ambiguous, although her reaction has been well documented. In any event, Saving Mr. Banks will further deepen the appreciation for Mary Poppins. And for those who may not be familiar with it, this may be a good introduction for them.