Disney Pictures have a long tradition of taking darker stories (like most fairy tales are) and turning them into wholesome family entertainment with feel-good happy endings. Now they appear to have taken on one about their own history in Saving Mr Banks, which recounts the struggle Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had in wrangling the rights to produce a film version of Mary Poppins from author PL Travers (Emma Thompson). Though it should be noted that the script existed before Disney came on board, Saving Mr Banks is very much a film in the vein of the Disney canon.
Walt Disney as a character is the embodiment of charm, and played wonderfully by Tom Hanks (who’s had quite an amazing past 12 months or so, from Cloud Atlas to Captain Phillips to this via Toy Story of Terror!, he could well be headed back to the top of the Hollywood A-list). He’s not after the Mary Poppins film rights (just) because he thinks he can make a lot of money from it, he wants them because of a promise he made to his daughter 20 years previously.
While Walt is portrayed as a passionate family man, it’s important to note that PL Travers is always the primary focus of the film, it never attempts to turn her into the villain of the piece, and attempts to understand and sympathise with her using a series of flashbacks to her childhood in Australia with her alcoholic banker father (Colin Farrell). These scenes aim to explicitly demonstrate why the characters are so important to Travers and why it’s so hard for her to let them go. They’re reasonably successful in this yet also feel tonally off from the main storyline and occasionally distract from it. It’s quite possible that Emma Thompson would have been able to inject enough humanity into the adult Travers for the film to suffice without these flashbacks.
Where the film really works, is in its series of highly amusing creative meetings when Travers is negotiating with Disney and his crew. Thompson is excellent in these exchanges, nailing down the struggle Travers must have faced whilst enhanced by the script’s sharp, witty dialogue (there’s a priceless moment when she assesses Dick Van Dyke’s acting abilities). She doesn’t want a film to be made of her book, but is in need of the money she can make from selling the rights, so will try her hardest to ensure the film is to her liking. It’s an easy position to understand, but the stubborn Travers is frightfully rude to everyone she is required to meet, frequently insulting Disney’s body of work, shooting down every suggestion the composers and screenwriter come up with, and even making ludicrous demands such as wanting the colour red completely absent from the film. They face a long struggle to win her over; she hates animation, and can’t stand musicals. The likable supporting cast all do a great job in their often amusing struggles to put up with Travers, becoming increasingly exasperated with her attitude. The film also gets a good deal of fish-out-of-water comedy from Travers’s dislike of seemingly all things American.
It’s come in for some serious criticism over its supposed twisting of the facts, and glossing over the fact that PL Travers was never pleased with Disney’s Mary Poppins, but it doesn’t try to suggest that she liked it either. No spoilers here, we all know Mary Poppins ends up being made, and it’s really to Saving Mr Banks’ credit that this foreknowledge never hampers enjoyment of seeing the process that led to it unfold.
It can’t be denied that there’s a rather dubious message lurking within the sugary exterior of Saving Mr Banks though, it is after all, the story of a rich and powerful company battling to take the work of a singular artist away from them, in which we’re invited to side with the big money man.
Saving Mr Banks is very much playing on a hope that the audience has fond memories of Mary Poppins, as lots of its key moments of uplift surround witnessing the inception of songs and scenes from the film that would go on to become beloved by many. Personally, I saw Poppins plenty of times as a child, and didn’t even know it was based on a book until years later, so they certainly worked for me. If it overdoes the flashbacks, it avoids doing the same with the snippets of Poppins music we hear, saving them just for the right moments.
Saving Mr Banks might take a few liberties with history, but it doesn’t ever really suggest that Travers was happy with the film, and in all honesty, it’s hard to imagine a film version of Mary Poppins that PL Travers would have liked (and it is a children’s fantasy book after all, not exactly highbrow literature). If you love Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, you’ll have no trouble agreeing that he was right all along in his vision for the film, and find a good deal of nostalgia-sparking enjoyment in Saving Mr Banks.