Saving Mr. Banks paints generous picture of historic
Watching Saving Mr. Banks, a feel-good take on the contentious account of novelist P.L. Travers and filmmaker Walt Disney in making the 1964 classic Mary Poppins, it’s hard not to recall the famous quote ‘History is written by the victors.’
For all the filmmakers’ well-meaning efforts, it’ll take more than sugary spoonfuls to swallow this tale of revisionist history, which cast its main character as both the protagonist and villain in a audience-pleasing, if incomplete look behind the Walt Disney empire’s curtain.
Travers (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures) reluctantly agrees to come to Burbank and meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, Cloud Atlas), who has spent two decades trying to convince her to allow him to adapt her acclaimed book into a feature film.
Initially dismissive of Disney’s red carpet treatment, including a cheerful driver, Ralph, (Paul Giamatti) and a posh hotel room, Travers is even less enthused once Disney unveils his full plans. Giamatti, counters his loathsome slave trader in 12 Years a Slave with a very likable performance, allowing Ralph to be the one character without an agenda.
With the aid of his scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwarzman) Sherman, Disney doesn’t intend to let anything stop him from making the Mary Poppins movie — not even its prickly creator.
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) knows how to craft an underdog story, setting up numerous obstacles for the hero to overcome before finally achieving success, but he picks the wrong character as his underdog.
Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith don’t offer much support for Travers. Anyone who’s enjoyed Mary Poppins is going to instantly side against Travers and her “ludicrous” demands. No Dick Van Dyke, animated penguins and worse, no songs? Inconceivable!
Thomas Newman’s score flows seamlessly with the actors performing some of Mary Poppins classic tunes Chim Chim Cher-ee and Let’s Go Fly a Kite to give the film that light, breezy feel Hancock looks to achieve with mixed results.
Travers’s attempts to stick to her principals and refuses to bow down to the pressures of the corporate machine should be commended, but the film makes her an uncompromising ingrate unwilling to let Disney improve on her story.
Casting Hanks was a shrewd decision as he makes Disney such an ‘aww shucks’ smooth talker with such a reasonable, good-natured demeanor that it’s hard to envision anyone telling him no. Hanks is at his charismatic best and while the role isn’t particularly multifaceted, he’s especially charming here.
Marcel and Smith attempt to rationalize Travers’ inability to play nice with others via flashbacks looking back at her earlier days where we see her as a child (Annie Rose Buckley), who adored her fun-loving and down on his luck father, Travers Goff (an outstanding Colin Farrell, Total Recall, tackling the film’s most complex role) and how her childhood impacted her writing.
Thompson manages to overcome most of the screenwriters’ knack for making Travers little more than a caricature. She gives Travers a put-upon persona where any gesture will set her off, but the more skilled measure of her performance is how she slyly shows Travers letting her guard down, allowing the tiniest amount of joy to seep in. Thompson proves part magician crafting such a memorable character with so little to work with. Thompson and Hanks are all but guaranteed locks for Oscar nominations.
Viewing the film from the Disney perspective, this is a light, fun film that shows how the magic of Disney could fix even the most jaded and broken heart.
It’s a lovely narrative that politely ignores the fact that the real Travers was so disgusted with Disney’s treatment that she refused to sign off on any further Disney/Poppins films and did not want anyone involved in the film to have anything else to do with further Poppins adaptations. But who needs the facts when there’s a happy ending at stake?
Rating: 6 out of 10
Photo Credit: François Duhamel/Disney Enterprises, Inc.