English author and creator of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, is forced to consider selling the movie rights of her cherished character to Walt Disney when funds dry up – but she won’t let Poppins go without a fight. Does Saving Mr Banks really hit the mark?
Article by Jamie C.
There are some films that plunder the vaults to tell us a story to which we already know the outcome – Apollo 13 (1995), Lincoln (2012) – but it still doesn’t prevent you from getting swept along with the characters and enjoying the cinematic journey.
Saving Mr Banks (2013) is one such film, telling the story of the skirmishes between the cartoon titan, Walt Disney, and the creator/writer of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, in his relentless quest to obtain the movie rights.
On the surface it might seem like a relatively straightforward and simplistic tale of an uptight, reclusive English spinster at war with the mighty Trojans of the Hollywood movie-making machine – but it’s a lot more nuanced and textured than that. Travers is a woman who has her own fair share of family tragedies and personal insecurities, but her inevitable succumbing to Disney is more layered than it might initially suggest.
And that’s down to the cast, in this case the pairing of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, who bring a depth and richness to their portrayals of characters who are personally and culturally poles apart.
Saving Mr Banks kicks off with Travers being informed by her agent the book sales from her Poppins novels are dwindling and the cash is slowly running out. She’s also had an ongoing, 20-year battle with Disney over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins novels, to which she has vehemently and stubbornly refused to hand over.
Screenshot from the trailer
She’s a dreamer but she also can’t ignore the realities of her situation. It’s only a matter of time before she capitulates to what she always knew she had to do. And though the Hanks/Thompson dynamic does represent a significant part of the film, the story is given a more personal, introspective rendering, and not the Hanks/Thompson sparring you might have expected.
This makes it a far more complex and interesting film and creates a broader character arc for its female protagonist. Thompson plays Travers with a precision and incisiveness that’s completely enchanting, despite the fact Travers is a belligerent, cantankerous and crotchety woman, hurling cutting comments at anyone in sight and expressing biting, scathing contempt for pretty much anyone and everything that crosses her path.
She could have come across as wholly unpleasant and unlikeable, but Thompson is immediately hypnotic and captivating, furrowing into Travers’ past to flesh out a character haunted by her past and a woman who is achingly unhappy.
So when Disney and Travers finally meet, she makes sure she calls the shots and shows them who’s really the boss – enforcing a slew of outrageous demands (tape recording all meetings, at one point insisting there be no red in the film) to get final approval of every aspect of the script before she’ll sign on the dotted line.
Screenshot from the trailer
But it’s more playful than pernicious, and she takes great, cheeky delight in piercing the cute heart of all things Disney, to the total frustration of singer/songwriter Sherman brothers and screenwriter, Don Da Gradi. She was insistent on keeping a reality and edginess to the story, and was vehemently against animated penguins (although we all know how that turned out.)
For a movie actually released by Disney, it’s refreshing to see a representation of an English character that has no time or patience for the cutesiness and whimsy of American values. She’s a woman who, for reasons that later become fully realised and understood, takes Mary Poppins very seriously – it’s not just part of a story but it’s also part of her life, and her and Disney’s approaches in the beginning couldn’t be more chalk and cheese.
Saving Mr Banks employs flashbacks to recount her childhood and early years growing up in Australia, to a father(Colin Farrell) she loves more than anything in the world, a man who’s equally a dreamer and with his head in the clouds, but who is met with regular opprobrium by his family and employers because of his lack of social graces and, as it transpires, heavy drinking.
There are perhaps too many flashbacks to nudge us in the emotional direction of the story and a few of them could have been excised, but Farrell gives a heartfelt, anguished and moving performance, delivering occasionally corny lines with power and charm.
Much has been made of Disney’s controversial past, and Hanks plays Uncle Walt as a suitably complex character – at once incredibly affable and charming, yet possessed of a darker, more ruthless side. Ultimately, lest we forget, he’s a man who is relentless in his quest to fulfil a promise to his kids to turn Mary Poppins into a movie, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it.
Screenshot from the trailer
Paul Giamatti also provides sterling support as Travers’ driver, Ralph. He might only have a few, relatively brief scenes, but he’s fleshed out as a fully rounded character – “the only American I ever liked”, according to Travers – and portrayed with the usual subtle, nuanced gestures Giamatti is so good at.
And although there are occasional unexpected, slightly subversive strokes in its telling, it’s still a Disney film and therefore careful not to over-step the line too much. The realities of Travers’ life are therefore inevitably condensed and simplified, skipping over her bisexual affairs and the fact that she wasn’t quite as prim and proper as the film portrays her – she was, in fact, quite a transgressive and revolutionary character.
The provenance of Travers’ creation is actually only lightly touched on, but this works to the film’s advantage. What we have, then, is a story not only about the creation of one of the most enchanting movies ever made, but a tale of combating one’s personal insecurities and demons as atonement for the past to look forward to the future.
Hanks is good but Thompson is fantastic in a movie that’s more than just about a brash and flamboyant Yankee showman loosening up an uptight Brit. Saving Mr Banks is Brilliantly played, totally charming and undeniably moving, it’s an affectionate telling of one of the compelling and fraught book-to-screen stories ever. Magical.