Arts movie review

A spoonful of saccharine

PL Travers would not have approved of this film either


Saving Mr. Banks

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, and Colin Farrell

Rated PG-13

Now playing

It should come as no surprise that a movie with the Walt Disney Company imprimatur shows their founder as a kindly fellow, who insists that he only wants to make a film adaptation of Mary Poppins to fulfill a promise he made to his daughters when they were children.

Played by the ever likeable Tom Hanks, Disney invites PL Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the popular children’s books about the magical governess, to the Walt Disney Studios to convince her to sign away the movie rights, which he has been after for twenty years. He caters to the irritating whims of “Mrs. Travers”, as she insists on being called, while showing nothing but support for the team that must work through the script with a wet blanket like her. If you do not leave the theater wishing that you too could have had a guided tour of Disneyland with Walt, this film has simply failed in its mission.

The story of Travers’ two-week visit to Disney’s Los Angeles studios in 1961 is interwoven with flashbacks to her childhood, which will presumably show us how an imaginative young girl in Australia grew into a bitter British woman who corrects everyone’s manners. In one especially well-wrought scene, the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) play the song “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” and the lyrics are superposed on a drunken speech her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) gives at a fair that utterly humiliates his family.

It doesn’t take much knowledge of pop psychology to see that working on the script with Disney’s well-meaning and chipper team is bringing back painful memories of whatever hidden trauma dictates her now sour mood. The purse-lipped Travers serves as a foil to the jovial Disney, who confides in her his own difficult childhood. Both of them might be projecting their own fathers onto the character of Mr. Banks, the father in Mary Poppins, but only Disney has apparently risen above it all.

The focus on using art to sublimate painful experiences hides a darker side of the story in plain view. Disney breaks the first and most important promises he makes to her. Their major falling out revolves around the promise that he wouldn’t use any animation. Her aversion to animation is never explained, and, given that it was Disney’s forte, the audience is likely to forgive him for using it in what have become iconic scenes.

But what is not shown is how Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins is nothing like the Mary Poppins in the book, which is a far greater betrayal from an artistic point of view and exactly what Travers asked him not to do. If you haven’t read the books, Travers’ father in his happy-go-lucky moments seems to be the inspiration for Mary Poppins as she is depicted in Disney’s version. Yet, the actual inspiration for Mary Poppins eventually becomes clear, and the character’s no-nonsense attitude is entirely lost with no comment in Andrews’ cheerful singing and Van Dyke’s buffoonery.

Despite the warm glow of its beautiful period sets, this film is almost vengeful. Anyone who loves Mary Poppins the Disney movie will necessarily feel defensive when Travers hates the songs and apparently everything fun. We’re basically forced to side with Disney against her when she insists that the script preserve the spirit of the books, as if it were an unheard-of imposition.

In fairness, PL Travers was actually a difficult person to like by some accounts, though it’s hard to know what her side of the story is from this movie. In real life as in the movie, Travers insisted that her meetings with the script team be recorded, and one example conversation is played during the credits. It’s as though the filmmakers are trying to justify their unflattering portrait by saying, “See? She really was like this!” Even her personal growth, which is credited to Disney’s kind intervention, is undercut by her snippy comment to him at the premier.

Despite the occasional jabs at Disney’s cloying brand of entertainment, the film couldn’t just show Walt Disney as anything but down-to-earth and loveable, and so it set up PL Travers as a complete mess. I suspect she would have needed more than a spoonful of sugar for this one.