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Saving Mr. Banks

December 13, 2013
Saving Mr. Banks

Contrary to the buzz leading up to the release of Saving Mr. Banks, this is not really a film about Walt Disney making the movie of Mary Poppins. Sure, he’s there, and Tom Hanks does a fantastic job with the character, but it’s really about Emma Thompson’s portrayal of P.L. Travers, the author of the series of books from which Mary Poppins was adapted. And in exploring the life this woman drew on to produce her famous characters we find a wonderfully thoughtful and nuanced portrait, with a depth well beyond what is usually associated with the name “Walt Disney Pictures”.

It’s probably not a surprise that the Mary Poppins of the books is pretty different from the one Julie Andrews played in the movie. What might come as a surprise is how different Travers’ ideas were from Disney’s. There would, she swore, be no movie of Mary Poppins. And when her diminishing finances forced her to consider the deal Disney had been chasing for twenty years, she swore that there would be no singing, and definitely no animation.

Despite all that, Travers found herself on a two-week trip to the Disney studios to develop the script. Her personality is the diametric opposite of, well, pretty much all of southern California, and the studio that bears Disney’s personal stamp. Disney can’t stand to hear his own last name, insisting that everyone call him simply “Walt”; Travers can’t bear anything else, insisting very specifically on “Mrs. Travers”. The two talk past each other almost the entire time.

Travers begrudgingly accepts working with the scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), but the songwriting team of Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) are simply beneath her consideration. The endlessly sunny driver (Paul Giamatti) and chirpy secretary (Melanie Paxson) make her visit excruciating. It seems there’s no way they’ll reach any sort of agreement that ends with Travers signing over the film rights.

As Travers struggles against the Disneyfication of her character, we intercut this story with her childhood in Australia as the young Helen “Ginty” Goff (Annie Buckley). One familiar Poppins reference after another pops up, with a prequel’s sense of “ah, so that’s where that came from”. But at first it’s hard to square this child with the woman Thompson gives us. This little Queensland girl who adored her father (Colin Farrell), a wide-eyed fantasist who cites his “Celtic blood” with both his gift of gab and his alcoholic curse, can hardly be the same stern Briton standing on formalism and propriety at every turn.

But as both stories play out it becomes all too apparent how the child became the woman, and just why the changes Disney and his team propose for the characters bring her such grief. We come to see Mary as a kind of therapy that has run too long. It has helped Mrs. Travers to hold herself together, but now allows her to avoid facing the truth of where she came from.

As I said before, Tom Hanks does a wonderful job as Disney, right down to the physicality. Even his normally rectangular face becomes a dead ringer for Walt’s more rounded head. But for all his spot-on work, it’s still really a supporting role for Thompson, who gives us a deft and detailed rendition of a woman letting her guard down for maybe the first time in her adult life. P.L. Travers is a complicated and frustrating character, holding life at a proper, measured distance all to keep it from reopening the wounds that remain beneath her hard exterior. Thompson can be stern — there’s more than a little of Nanny McPhee in here — but she backs that up with a hurt, lost, tender side.

For a studio that’s all but identified with simplistic, whimsical diversions for children — exactly what Travers feared in 1961 — Walt Disney Pictures has managed to produce a surprisingly mature and balanced biopic. There are no angels or demons here; no easy right and wrong. Saving Mr. Banks manages to be emotional without too much melodrama, and uplifting without saccharine. It doesn’t hurt that Thomas Newman concocts a score largely by resetting the famous songs from Mary Poppins itself, albeit with the addition of one bizarrely 80s-style upbeat orchestral theme that comes back with annoying regularity.

Mary Poppins may have come from one girl’s pain as a desperate wish to save her father from himself, but she lives on for each of us in a different way. This is how she went from one girl’s wish to an entire world’s dream.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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