[13 December 2013]
“Mary Poppins is the very enemy of whimsy.”
—P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), Saving Mr. Banks
Another in a long line of Disney harridans come to wipe the smiles off the faces of happy adults and frighten the kids, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) seems in Saving Mr. Banks to be much like her fantastical nanny, Mary Poppins. For all her skills at solving problems, however, at the start of John Lee Hancock’s movie, Travers herself is in need of help. The royalties from the Poppins books have dried to a trickle and she’s suffering writer’s block. In her first moments on screen, Travers is sitting bolt upright in her spit-spot London rowhouse filled with tasteful bric-a-brac, imagining all that she has to lose and brushing off her agent’s worries with shallow confidence.
It’s 1961, and she has glimpses of a lifeline, the same one that’s been dangling there for some two decades: Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wants to make a movie of Mary Poppins. As reluctantly as if she were mounting the gallows, Travers boards a plane to Hollywood, still unsure that she will sign over the rights. Ever the optimist, Disney has already started production on what he’s certain will be the studio’s big new tentpole musical.
Travers stalks into the Disney lot and proceeds to lay waste to everything she sees and hears. She thinks the songs are absurd and the sets all wrong, browbeating screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman). Terrified that Disney will turn her vinegary Poppins into a mindless cartoon princess, expostulating at one point that Disney would have her “twinkling … and cavorting,” Travers moans, “poor A.A. Milne.” Disney, of course, doesn’t understand any of it. He just wants to make a movie that he promised his daughters he’d make 20 years before (or at least that’s what he tells Travers). He also, of course, wants to make himself filthy rich in the process.
One of the great selling points of Saving Mr. Banks is this clash of characters. She’s the proper British writer representing an already fading ideal of Victorian decorum. He’s the modern American televisual salesman who has made a career out of ransacking the myths of the world and repackaging them in singing, dancing, animated Technicolor. The practically perfect Thompson is all stiff lip and querulous frown, her Travers wondering what fresh hell she’s just stumbled into; Thompson delivers more information out of a slight narrowing of the eyes than most actors can with an entire speech.
Hanks goes larger-than-life as a carnival barker should, first cajoling and gladhanding before turning to understated threats and emotional blackmail. It’s an impressive performance, with Hanks understanding that Disney wasn’t the kindly old uncley figure he played on his weekly TV show, but a showman through and through, with more than a little of the seducer in him. As glossy and neatly wrapped up as it all is, Hancock’s film gets that aspect of Disney, too: one of Travers’ better lines has her referring to Disneyland as “your dollar-printing machine.”
While the battle of the creative minds rages, the film sketches in a long-winded series of flashbacks. Here we see Travers as a child in a small Australian town, circa 1906. An imaginative little girl (Annie Rose Buckley), she’s coping with a drunk of a father (Colin Farrell) given to long flights of poetic fancy and a mother (Ruth Wilson) slowly slipping into melancholy. None of these scenes quite clicks in the way that the present day scenes do, though Farrell does what he can with a repetitive character.
When the emotional catharsis comes late in the film, the reason for all the backstory comes clear, but the whiff of manipulation hangs heavy on it. But, then, one doesn’t bring in the director of The Blind Side without wanting a little of that element.
Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay works from the framework of a true story and stretches a mostly new emotional cloth over it. The deep bench of supporting characters—particularly Paul Giamatti as her LA driver, playing yet another loveable schlub—exist mostly to push Travers towards her epiphany. Many of the details here are true to various reports of what happened when Travers met Disney, including her fight to preserve what she saw as the core of her character and Disney’s decision not to invite her to the movie’s Hollywood premiere.
If Poppins was not quite the psychological crutch for Travers that the film imagines her to be, Marcel and Smith do at least give the writer the dignity of a principled stand. Her change of heart is inevitable, but it’s not only sentimental or even wholly celebratory, and even allows for some complexity. One of the better comic inserts is a frowning Travers, lonely in her room at the Beverly Hills Hilton, picking up the giant Mickey Mouse doll from the Disney welcome basket and pulling it into bed with her.
Saving Mr. Banks works hard to make us want Travers to melt in the warm California sunshine while leaving Disney mostly unchanged (he was the boss after all, and it’s his name in the credits). But, even for its half-baked Freudianisms, the movie makes a compelling case for Travers and other artists, that their characters can be more than just creations. They’re family, in a way that the dollar-printing Disney can’t understand.