A therapist’s couch is replaced with Disneyland in Saving Mr Banks. Author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) expels a few personal demons with the help of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and the production crew of Mary Poppins. It’s two hours of the therapy scenes from Good Will Hunting and I guarantee you’ll be yelling at the screen midway ‘it’s not your fault Travers!’ At times it’s heavy handed and repetitive but surprisingly moving as Hollywood saves the day yet again.
Based on a true story, after 20 years of negotiating the rights to the novel Mary Poppins, Travers ventures to California in 1961 to finalise the deal with Walt Disney while overseeing the production of the film. While screenwriters and musicians bring Travers’ work to life on the backlot of Disney Studios, the author reflects on her childhood growing up in Australia and the experiences that inspired Mary Poppins.
Springing between flashbacks to Travers’ childhood and the adult author navigating Hollywood, director John Lee Hancock establishes the formula of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. At a very slow pace the story unfolds. As Travers plays hard to get with Walt Disney and his staff, Hancock laboriously digs into Travers’ past to explain the reasoning behind her disagreements with the artistic decisions about the adaptation of Mary Poppins. Hancock goes around in circles stating and restating everything. Scenes of Travers verses the Disney empire are entertaining at first but become rusty after multiple confrontations, and in her memories you see the wonderful relationship with her father (Colin Farrell) overstated to the point of nausea. There is a great story in Saving Mr Banks but it’s constantly swimming against the current of Hancock’s laborious handling of the material that gets sidetracked with fan service to the Mary Poppins film and any opportunity to spruik the glory of Walt Disney.
Once Hancock finally gets to the guts of Travers’ story, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel with rewrites from Sue Smith, starts to take flight. In flashback mode you see the members of Travers’ family who all inspire aspects of Mary Poppins. The primary focus is on her father, the archetype for Mr Banks, and there is heartache in witnessing the young Travers realise her father isn’t a hero. Hancock, Marcel and Smith manage to perfectly capture the moment of discovery in childhood that parents are fallible. The anguish traverses time it becomes clear why the adult Travers is silently suffering and so protective of her work. A special subplot featuring Travers and her limo driver (Paul Giamatti) actually eclipses a bulk of any of the character’s interactions with Walt Disney, heavily promoted as the core of the film, and it’s where the real power of Travers’ work as a writer meets her head on. Thompson and Giamatti make a fantastic pairing and their chemistry could have produced a completely separate film: Driving Ms Travers.
Travers is brought to life with pomp and purpose by Thompson and it’s a fantastically neurotic performance. Thompson portrays Travers as a fiercely independent person with a sharp wit who rarely suffers fools. Despite the tough demeanour, Thompson manages to convey vulnerability in Travers’ gaze as she drifts back to her childhood. Hanks looks the part as Walt Disney but there isn’t much depth to the character beyond seeing someone portray the icon in a mainstream film for the first time. Hanks gets a tiny moment to relate with Travers over the baggage of their childhood, but the whole performance feels vigilantly crafted to ensure the man is represented in the best possible light as not to offend the mouse house. Farrell is charming as Travers’ father and the actor easily flips to the darker side of the character and it’s heartbreaking. Ruth Wilson manages to buck the cliché of a ‘long suffering wife’ as Travers’ mother and transitions the performance into one of genuine worry and depression. Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak are tolerant and sometimes vivacious in the screenwriting and song writing trenches with Travers, and be sure to stick through the credits to her the real audio of their conversations (Travers insisted everything be recorded).
According to Saving Mr Banks the making of Mary Poppins was a healing experience for Travers and Walt Disney is practically Sigmund Freud. Of course, this is the giant spoon of sugar to help the bitter aspects of the story go down. Travers was famously unhappy with the film version of Mary Poppins for years after the release and agreed to never let Disney adapt any of her other novels. When Travers passed away in 1996 there were specific stipulations in her last will and testament preventing Disney from meddling with her work again. Despite the heavy gloss weighing down Saving Mr Banks there’s an emotional pull in the scars of childhood and a creator’s relationship with their characters. Plus Disney is really really great! Buy Disney. Live Disney (I think they’re watching me).
[rating=3] and a half
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies