Saving Mr Banks, the latest from director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), reveals the trials and tribulations of adapting P.L Travers’ popular series of children novels into Mary Poppins, one of the greatest and most beloved screen musicals ever made. The story shifts between Travers childhood in Queensland, Australia in 1906 and her 1961 negotiations with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) as he attempts to obtain the screen rights to her novels. Invited to California for a fortnight briefing during the pre-production stage, Travers (Emma Thompson) reflects on her childhood – and especially her father, the inspiration for the story’s patriarch Mr Banks – and is stubbornly adamant that Disney and the film’s screenwriters and composers take no liberties with her personal vision.
This film works doubly as a portrait of a writer, and how she utilised the traumas of her childhood to create something unique and imaginative, and how these beloved tales made the transition from the page to the screen, nursed by Disney studios and personally supervised by Walt Disney himself. It is quite a story.
One’s understanding of Mary Poppins – to at least seen it once - is useful to appreciating this film. But certainly not imperative. It is relaxing, technically pleasing, feel-good charmer that benefits from the fine performances. Many viewers will recognize the songs written by the Sherman Brothers (portrayed by Jason Schwarzman and B.J Novak in Saving Mr Banks) and it is entertaining throughout to hear their personal renditions of the eventual songs as an unpolished pitch. The same goes for Bradley Whitford’s work as co-screenwriter Don DaGradi, whose ideas for the characters eventually mold into the ones we know and love.
Mary Poppins is a wonderful film, and for all of its animated sequences, song-and-dance numbers and fantastic qualities, there is a really moving story of fatherhood and family embedded within. Disney at one point claims that “Mary Poppins came to save the children” to which Travers scoffs disappointingly in dismissal. Mr. Banks, whose life has been shaped by his work at the bank, has completely lost sight of what he holds most dear. It is Mr. Banks who needed saving, and as we learn about Travers’ childhood, and her own father, we come to understand just what had inspired her creation, and why she feels so strongly about it being adapted right.
Hanks’ Disney has a twinkly charm. While he seems to be occupied by this one sole project (there must have been other endeavors in the pipeline at the time), the script gently navigates the point at which Disney shares his own personal history, which would inspire Travers to finally let the reigns fall into his hands. Hanks has had a terrific year (outstanding in Captain Phillips) and if there was any doubt about his versatility as an actor, he has certainly quashed those doubts. It was clear that Disney was a taskmaster, beset on getting his way. He did meet his match with Travers, a strong-willed woman who would not stand down and let her creative ideas remain unheard. Travers treats her creative colleagues (and personal chauffer, played so genuinely nicely by Paul Giamatti one can’t help but love him) horridly throughout so it is a testament to Thompson’s work that we come to care about Travers a great deal. Come the end of the story I was quite moved – there were tears in my eyes, I’ll admit – and that is courtesy of Thompson.
While the flashbacks to Australia are perhaps too frequent, and a tad uneven, they do align with the present timeline and the parts of the story under negotiation. What gave the sequences in Australia a big lift was the excellent performance from Colin Farrell, as Travers’ alcoholic father. A juvenile-acting dreamer, he is a wonderful father when he returns from work, but the pressure of his profession and the isolated location he has introduced his family too, has created demons he is struggling to overcome.
Saving Mr Banks tells a charming story with an unabashed sentimentality. This will be too glossy for some and Disney propaganda overload for others, but I enjoyed it. While the facts have likely been tinkered with, it feels far more authentic than one expects this Disney-coated origin story to be. Fueled by the work of Thompson and Hanks and a resonating tale of fatherhood, challenged authorship and creative freedom this is a crowd-pleasing holiday drama that should become a quiet box office success.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22