By Marty Mulrooney
Saving Mr. Banks is an American-British-Australian film directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side). Based on (or perhaps more accurately, inspired by) a true story, the film stars Emma Thompson as author Pamela ‘P.L.’ Travers and Tom Hanks as filmmaker Walt Disney, as they struggle to bring the story of Mary Poppins from the small page to the big screen.
‘The Black List’ is a survey sent out every year to top studio and production company executives that collects the very best motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Saving Mr. Banks featured on the 2011 list and it’s easy to see why. A Disney film about the troubled creation of yet another Disney film created in the 1960s, with flashbacks to the early 1900s, doesn’t sound particularly appealing – but the strong focus on nuanced characterisation and an undeniable undercurrent of heart must have quite simply leapt from the written page, and has made the transition to the silver screen with effortless grace and charm.
Emma Thompson is Pamela ‘P.L.’ Travers, author of the Mary Poppins series of children’s books. Faced with the daunting prospect of losing her home and unable to write, she finally accepts the invitation of Walt Disney to have a meeting about adapting her books into a feature film. After 20 years of ignoring his requests, she flies out from London to California and begins a battle to reluctantly allow the film to be made, with one important condition. She has final script approval… and the rights won’t be signed over until she is happy.
It turns out that it takes a lot to make her happy, which is where much of the comedy originates from. Thankfully, film audiences should be smiling long before Travers does. Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney – the first ever depiction of Disney in a mainstream film – and he delivers beautifully. It’s amazing what a moustache can do, but there is also a measured physicality he brings to the role and – shock horror! – Mr Disney is even shown drinking scotch… and smoking! In short, Walt is shown as a human rather than a god and it’s to Disney’s credit that the film was even allowed to be made in the first place.
This is very much a story of two halves. Of course, we all know that Mary Poppins was eventually made into a feature film and many people also know that Travers was unhappy with the finished result. Saving Mr. Bank’s has a clue in its title – it’s all about the father. Played by Colin Farrell with charisma laced with leaden despair, the story of Travers Robert Goff is nothing less than heartbreaking, especially when seen through the eyes of a child. An alcoholic who loves his children even as he slips far beyond their reach, as much of the film is spent in 1907 during Pamela’s childhood in Australia as it is in 1961.
Audiences can look forward to a well-made film with solid performances and impressive period detail. Emma Thompson in particular is wonderful, making Travers the necessary shades of sarcastic and bitchy without ever making her unlikeable. Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers’ chauffeur, also delivers an understated and likeable performance. However, there is a nagging concern throughout that the truth is being stretched to breaking point. In real life Travers felt like she’d had a raw deal from Mr Disney, especially when she saw Mary Poppins at the premiere she wasn’t even invited to… and hated it. It’s a nagging concern, but the beauty of Saving Mr. Banks is that it’s actually very carefully constructed, especially when it comes to its underlying message.
Towards the end of the film, Mr Disney puts forward the argument to Travers that sometimes it’s best remembering the past how you want to remember it. The character of Mary Poppins is softened and diluted – ‘Disneyfied’ – to bring joy to millions of children. In much the same way, Saving Mr. Banks waters down the truth (and no doubt often outright lies) to deliver a crowd-pleaser that ends on a happy note rather than a sad one. Travers would probably hate this film (and Disney himself would probably love it) but, fact or fiction, it’s extremely entertaining and hits some wonderful high notes, often up to the highest height. Disney was right about one thing at least – sometimes, a spoonful of sugar really does do just the trick.
8 OUT OF 10