Saving Mr. Banks

The movie Mary Poppins is pure Disney.  Which is both good and bad.  It is sentimental and manipulative, and I have always been troubled by its depiction of the Suffragist movement.  But the songs are clever and poignant and it is a gorgeous visual experience with classic Disney animation and some fine eccentric performances from Dick Van Dyke and others.  Then of course there is Julie Andrews’ angelic voice.  Kids love it and most baby boomers remember it with a rosy glow because it is a touchstone of our fondly remembered and reluctantly abandoned youths. 

There are those, however, who despise the movie.  They feel it pales in comparison to the source material which is a series of children’s books by P.L. Travers.  These people are children’s literature purists and Travers probably would have felt at home among them.  She resisted Disney’s overtures to make the movie for over twenty years. 

It turns out that the stories were based on incidents from her childhood, featuring her beloved father, an amiable drunk who couldn’t hold down a job in his banking career and who died when she was very young.  Her view was that children should not be coddled by encouraging them to engage in flights of fancy.  They should be given the cold hard truth about the world at an early age.  Consequently, she had no wish to see the stories Disneyfied.  What’s more she had a low opinion of movies as an art form and nothing but disgust for animation.

But by the sixties, with royalties from the books drying up and her bills mounting, she was beginning to waver.  This is where the movie starts.  The studio brings Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to California so that Walt Disney himself, played by Tom Hanks (Really who else?) could close the deal.  At their first meeting he explains to her that twenty years earlier he promised his daughters that he would make a film from their favorite book, Mary Poppins. 

He puts Travers together with his creative team, screenwriter Don DaGradi, played by Bradley Whitford and the songwriting brothers Richard Sherman, played by Jason Schwartzman and Robert Sherman, played by B.J. Novak. They show her some of the ideas they have about the project.  She is, of course, horrified.  Hoping to soften her position, Walt gives her a personal tour of Disneyland, which melts her a little bit.  But it is only when he connects with her by relaying stories of his own bad childhood and showing her that he understands what the book was really about—saving the father in the story, when her real father couldn’t be saved—that she relents.

At first glance it would seem that this role would not require Emma Thompson to stretch at all.  It is, I imagine, easy for her to play prim middle aged English ladies who want things just exactly their own way.  But underneath that façade is the little Australian girl in the flashbacks who they call Ginty, played by Annie Rose Buckley, who loves her playful dad, played by Colin Ferrell, who gives her piggyback rides and tells her that their hen is a princess under a curse.  Thompson is skilled enough to give us glimpses of that girl, even as she’s throwing tantrums in the rehearsal room or berating Walt Disney about dancing penguins.  There’s a scene in the Beverly Hills Hotel bar which she passes every day as she goes to her room.  Finally she decides to venture into it.  She orders a pot of tea and tries to chit chat with the bartender who walks away to serve another customer.  As she looks at all the other customers in the bar, chatting enjoyably amongst themselves, you can see her realize that this persona she’s developed to protect herself also isolates her and she can’t figure out how to get through it.

There are two stories in the film.  One is the flashback which tells the story of her father’s death in 1906 when she was seven. And then there is the current story about the negotiations for the film rights to Mary Poppins.  As events progress in the 1960’s you can see them affecting Travers’ memories of her childhood.  In some cases dialog right from the Mary Poppins movie seeps into her recollections.  It’s a subtle peek into the character’s mind as events change the way she sees things.  Credit should go to the director John Lee Hancock and the writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith for crafting a tight and elegant story arc.

As Uncle Walt, Tom Hanks doesn’t give an impersonation of the man, who we’ve all seen millions of times, but he does deliver the recognizable essence of him.  His charm is like a force of nature, completely irresistible.  You like him and even though he never raises his voice, you don’t want to disappoint him.  And yet there are layers on display here too.  The scene where he follows Travers back to her London townhouse and tells her about his own rough childhood is revealing.

I read the Wikipedia page on P.L. Travers and things didn’t happen the way they are depicted in Saving Mr. Banks.  In reality Travers hated the movie and felt that Disney had treated her badly when she was in California.  She refused to even consider making any of the other books into sequels and when she got involved with a stage production of it in the West End, she allowed the producers to use the Shermans’ songs but refused to let them cast any Americans.  There is no reason to believe that her experiences with Disney benefited her psychologically in any way.

So Saving Mr. Banks is Disney Disnifying its own corporate history.  Which is OK.  As Tom Hanks explains to Emma Thompson in the film, the purpose of storytelling is make to make order out of chaos.   A little tidying up of reality is always necessary in these things.  Plus, a great Disney film is a joy unto itself.

Saving Mr. Banks is a great Disney film.

//

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