Alcoholism. Suicide attempts. Special needs children. Child Abuse. Who knew that Mary Poppins brought so much baggage with her?
Saving Mr. Banks tells the story behind how Disney’s beloved Mary Poppins was made. For twenty years, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has been trying to acquire the rights to Mary Poppins so that he can turn his daughters’ favorite book into a movie. The problem is that author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) has been loath to give the rights up; she has serious reservations about what will happen to her beloved characters once they are in Disney’s hands. She finally agrees to a meeting with Disney after she is given script approval and the promise that the film will not be animated; her dwindling funds also make her slightly more receptive to the idea, though once she arrives in Los Angeles it is clear that she is still not convinced that this is a good idea. A total fussbudget, she hates pretty much everything that the team working on the project (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) has assembled and continues to put more and more restrictions on the process. She is even immune to Disney’s charms, as he puts on a full-court press charm offensive to try and sway her. The labored creative process is interrupted by flashbacks to Travers childhood and her relationship with her adored, but troubled father (Colin Farrell).
I need to make two disclaimers upfront: I am certainly not the target audience for this movie and I have never seen Mary Poppins in its entirety. A Disney film about the making of a Disney film is on paper way too sentimental and potentially schmaltzy for my personal tastes. If the film hadn’t received a Golden Globe nomination and general critical acclaim, I’m not sure I would have even checked it out. On the latter point, it didn’t even dawn on me until I actually went in to see Saving Mr. Banks that I might not have seen Mary Poppins. I am familiar with the songs and have seen clips of the big musical numbers, but it turns out that I never actually sat down and watched the film from start to finish; they referenced plot points in Saving Mr. Banks that I had no idea what they were talking about. Given my checkered history with Disney, not seeing Mary Poppins really isn’t all that surprising and I don’t think it hindered my enjoyment of Saving Mr. Banks. The few references that I didn’t get weren’t a handicap; they were adequately put into context so that my unfamiliarity with the source material wasn’t an issue. But I don’t have a built-in affinity for Mary Poppins that some of the audience might have.
Given these limitations, it is not surprising that I only liked, but didn’t love, Saving Mr. Banks. I thought it was well acted, but I found the story to be very shallow, despite the complex emotional backstory. Thompson in particular was very good; they load down P.L. Travers will so many unpleasant qualities that it is a miracle that you find her likable or sympathetic at all. That’s a credit to Thompson, who finds the humanity in Travers and the inner anguish that her brusque and uncompromising exterior covers. Thompson finds depth that I’m not sure existed in the script and does a nice job showing the damage that was done from the events that we see through the prolonged flashbacks to her childhood. It’s difficult to balance annoying and sympathetic, but Thompson does it. Hanks does his usual solid job as Walt Disney; though he doesn’t physically look much like the famous man behind the mouse, Hanks is able to catch Disney’s spirit and general demeanor. Because this is a film that is done by the Disney Corporation, there is a definite idealization of Disney the man. They certainly make him seem like the world’s greatest boss and father and though I don’t necessarily have any reason to doubt that he was great, you naturally have to assume that some characteristics have been amplified and that the man has been somewhat romanticized.
While the interactions between Travers and the team trying to make Mary Poppins is the main thrust of the film, I actually enjoyed the flashbacks quite a bit as well. Farrell was quite good as Travers’ doting father who whimsical and fun, but who was irresponsible and damaged his family due to his alcoholism. I am often charmed by Farrell – I think it’s his accent – and this role was no different. I would have liked a little more nuance and subtly in his character, but that was a general problem I had with the movie over all. Farrell had very good chemistry with the young actress that played his daughter; there was a definite sweetness to all their interactions and you could understand why Travers adored him despite his flaws.
Saving Mr. Banks was not nearly as saccharine as I feared it would be; there are some heavy issues in the film that are addressed, though in a very cursory way. Everything is addressed in a very family friendly way, which is not unsurprising. Even so, this was a lot darker than I expected the film to be and it did lend some gravitas to what could have been a pretty fluffy story. The Disney veneer to events was too neat and sentimental for my dark and twisted preferences, but at least they didn’t completely whitewash the story. I would have preferred a screenplay with a little more finesse and complexity, but that’s just me. I’m sure a lot of people will like Saving Mr. Banks just fine. Like I said, it just isn’t for me. I’m not a spoonful of sugar type of girl.
Some other thoughts:
- Luther fans: Ruth Wilson (Alice) plays Travers’ mothers in the flashbacks. Seems weird to see her without her red hair (and not plotting someone’s demise).
- Paul Giamatti is also good as the driver with infinite patience that is tasked with shepherding Travers around L.A.
- Walt Disney was a smoker? That’s a surprise!
- Also unexpected – the woman behind Mary Poppins was Australian, not British. Mind blown.
- While Bradley Whitford and Jason Schwartzman disappeared a little bit more into their roles, but that just never happened for me with B.J. Novak. Every time he was on screen, my brain went “Look! It’s Ryan the temp from The Office.”
- If you stay through the credits, you can see photos of the real people that the film is based on and hear some of P.L. Travers recorded conversations with the creative team.
- Seriously? Travers talked some smack about Dick Van Dyke? That man is a national treasure!
- The Chicago Tribune has an interview with Valerie Lawson, who wrote Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, on the movie and how it differs from real life.
Saving Mr. Banks is a fine movie that just doesn’t gel particularly well with my personal aesthetic. It wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea (pun intended) but I enjoyed it more than I thought it was. The acting was uniformly very good, unsurprising given the cast, but I found the story overall a little slow and too sentimental. I’m not sure that the film actually earned the big breakthrough between Travers and Disney; since we know that there is a Mary Poppins film, the stakes are significantly lowered since it is not a question of if the film will be made, but when. Saving Mr. Banks is really the story of a woman fighting for artistic control while confronting her personal demons. It’s less Disney than I anticipated, but Disney enough that the film didn’t completely win me over. It may, however, have convinced me to finally watch Mary Poppins. That in and of itself is something of an accomplishment.
Saving Mr. Banks opens nationwide today.