The film about the making of Mary Poppins is equally as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
“Can’t put my finger on what lies in store. But I feel what’s to happen, all happened before.”Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of Walt Disney’s pursuit of Pamela “P. L.” Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, and his attempts to woo her into selling the film rights. The movie itself takes place over a two week period in 1961, when Travers went to Los Angeles to negotiate personally with Disney and work on the screenplay. Although reticent to sell the rights, money problems had forced her hand but she was determined to retain creative control.
However, the events in Los Angeles also trigger numerous flashbacks to Travers’ difficult childhood in Australia, as she remembers her late father, the inspiration for the character of Mr. Banks in the book and subsequent cinematic adaptation. The film is an unusual co-production between Walt Disney Pictures and BBC Films, so whilst the story stays reasonably close to the facts, we are of course getting the Disney version of events.
As Travers and Disney respectively, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks both bring their 'A' game.
However that really doesn’t matter, this after all is a film and not a documentary, so what’s important is that Saving Mr. Banks works both as a companion piece to Mary Poppins and as a movie in its own right. In that sense the film is a resounding triumph, with a moving and often very funny story and a superb central performance from Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers. In fact all the performances are universally excellent, with Thompson and Tom Hanks, as Walt Disney, both bringing their 'A' game. Thompson, in particular, is very funny as the fastidious, difficult and often superior Travers, who jealously guards her famous creation.
Travers had repeatedly refused to sell the rights unless she had complete control of the finished film and her two main stipulations were no animation and no songs. So you can immediately see that things didn’t go quite according to plan. She also insisted that all the script meetings be recorded and you actually hear some of these recordings over the film’s end credits - proving just how accurate Thompson’s portrayal of Travers actually is. Whilst certain elements of her character might not be completely represented, Thompson captures her complex and contradictory nature and the film goes a long way to explaining just how important Mary Poppins was to her.
You feel that Walt always gets what he wants and behind the twinkle lies an arch manipulator.
As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks delivers an equally believable performance as the friendly and over-familiar showman with a twinkle in his eye. However, you also have the feeling that Walt always gets what he wants and that the twinkle hides an arch manipulator. At one point Disney tells Travers that he promised his daughters that he would make Mary Poppins into a film and you find yourself wondering if that’s true or just another act of manipulation. Hanks does a great job of portraying the man behind the famous persona and this is the first time that Disney, himself, has been portrayed in a mainstream movie. The film at least dares to lift the curtain slightly, be it the pre-signed photos that he uses when walking around Disneyland or the smoking that he carefully hides from public view. Although it should be stressed there is no actual on-screen smoking, in accordance with Disney policy, which is slightly anachronistic since pretty much everyone smoked in the early sixties.
Walt Disney spent twenty years trying to buy the rights to Mary Poppins and its the relationship between Disney and Travers that provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. There couldn’t be two more different people, in terms of personalities, with the slighting haughty and snobbish Travers loathing Americans and their uncouth and brash culture. Given that Disney represents the high-water mark of that particular culture, there would clearly be something of a clash which is perfectly captured in the scene where Travers finds her hotel room stuffed full of cuddly toy Disney characters. However, at the heart of it Disney understands Travers protection of her creation, having been equally possessive of Mickey Mouse back when he had nothing. The only reason that Travers is even considering selling the film rights is because she needs the money but that doesn’t mean she’s prepared to compromise.
The only American with which Travers develops a genuine relationship is her chauffeur Ralph and it is through him that she begins to appreciate both America and the importance of Mary Poppins to other people. Paul Giamatti, who plays Ralph, delivers a wonderfully heartfelt and subtle performance that delivers just the right amount of comic relief without ever sacrificing believability. The rest of the cast are equally as impressive with Bradley Whitford playing Don DaGradi, who co-wrote the screenplay. As the Sherman brothers, who composed the music and lyrics for Mary Poppins (among many other great Disney movies), are Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak. In fact the surviving brother, Richard Sherman was an advisor on the film. For the Australian flashback scenes, the role of the father is played by Colin Farrell and the mother is played by Ruth Wilson, who's a busy girl having already appeared in The Lone Ranger and Luther this year.
Ultimately the film is smart, witty, moving and hugely entertaining.
The film was written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, whose screenplay had previously appeared on the ‘Black List’ - a list of the best un-produced screenplays. The film was directed by John Lee Hancock, who most recently made The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock, although he also wrote Snow White and the Huntsman. The direction is excellent, effortlessly moving between 1961 and the Australian flashbacks, whilst John Schwartzman (half brother of Jason) creates some beautiful, if rather ‘Disney-fied’ cinematography. Thomas Newman delivers another marvellous score whilst the film is also obviously full of the Shermans' compositions.
There have been some who have criticised the film as a cynical attempt by Disney to promote the 50th anniversary of Mary Poppins but in fairness to the 'Magic Kingdom', the film didn’t start as a Disney production (hence the presence of BBC Films). Yes the truth is quite different and apparently Travers hated the film; so much so that she refused to sell the rights to her other books when Disney tried to buy them. However the film shows that old Walt wasn’t above telling the odd fib to get his way. His story about delivering papers for his father in the snow might be true but he’s also trying to capitalise on Travers’ own daddy issues. He ignores her request for no animation or songs in the film and didn’t even invite her to the premiere because he was worried about her reaction. In the film Travers loves Mary Poppins when she is finally invited to the premiere but in reality she was demanding Disney remove the animation, so Walt was probably right not to invite her.
Whatever the truth, the end result speaks for itself and Mary Poppins the film is an all-time classic. Yes large chunks of it are pure Disney but how many people now would have heard of Travers' flying nanny without the film adaptation? Walt may not have entirely kept his promise to P. L. Travers but he kept his promise to his daughters and immortalised Mary Poppins for generations to come. Yes, Saving Mr. Banks can be seen as cynical marketing exercise but it’s also a wonderful character study and features two of the best performances you’ll see all year. Ultimately the film is smart, witty, moving and hugely entertaining - what more could you want from an evening at the cinema?
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