Directed by John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks is every bit the polished apple that the Disney machine is capable of pushing out. It’s a glossy, well-delivered piece of revisionist history, with any rough edges buffed out and any quibbling against the House of Mouse summed up as a good old case of ambitious creativity.
The germ for Saving Mr. Banks originated in 2002 with a documentary film about the life of P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. With Disney onboard, access was granted to a wealth of material pertaining to the relationship between Travers and Walt Disney. The problem with this is that Saving Mr. Banks feels torn between two masters.
Emma Thompson stars as P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. Flashback sequences show her (Annie Rose Buckley) growing up in Queensland with her father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell). In 1961, P. L. is once again in negotiations with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to transform her beloved book into a feature film.
The flashbacks paint the importance of Poppins and illustrate why Travers isn’t so game to let her character go. She is seen as fussy and difficult by the Disney staff, although she does strike up a friendship of sorts with the chauffer (Paul Giamatti). Walt continues to press his advantage nevertheless and eventually lands an agreement to bring Mary Poppins to life on celluloid.
Saving Mr. Banks is a well-acted motion picture, with Thompson bringing all manner of grumpy charisma to her character. Hanks is an ideal Disney, if the ideal Disney is to be an American everyman with a penchant for amiable stories and amusement park rides. The chain-smoking was left out, of course.
The film is at its very best when it explores the frightening notion of letting a creative work go. In Travers’ case, the flashbacks illustrate just how personal and cathartic Mary Poppins was, so one can hardly blame her for not wanting it embodied with animated penguins and Dick Van Dyke. Disney’s steamrolling of these desires is condensed in gleeful song-and-dance sequences.
Getting the deal done requires a pile of Disney magic, as one might expect. It requires a key revelation about Travers and a visit to London that didn’t happen, but Mary Poppins makes it to the big screen all the same. The scene between the two is a good one, however, and Disney’s tale about delivering papers in the snow is an interesting touch.
But that interesting touch is symptomatic of how Saving Mr. Banks is of two minds. On one hand, the darker tale of how Poppins was brought to life is fascinating. The story of Travers’ father in Australia, played vulnerably and well by Farrell, alters what’s at the core of Mary Poppins in a profound way.
To ensure that this doesn’t prove to be a “downer,” the Disney sheen kicks into high gear and audiences are treated to Travers’ arrival at the movie premiere – the one she wasn’t invited to. She even gets to walk arm-in-arm with the ludicrous Mickey Mouse, a vision of how okay everything is. Right?
And yet reality weaves a different tale, a narrative in which Travers detested the Disney version of her Poppins so much that she took her loathing to her grave. She really did hate those damn penguins – and for good reason.