In the interests of full disclosure, any discussion by this reviewer of John Lee Hancock’s new movie Saving Mr. Banks must begin with the admission that I absolutely detested Mary Poppins when I was a kid. At the time of its release, I was turning 11 and feeling the first vague yearnings for adult sophistication – that is to say, exactly the wrong age for Walt Disney’s treacly masterpiece. I rebelled against its cutesiness, which seemed to me at the time offensively condescending to children. Sad to say, I have never since felt motivated enough to watch it a second time.
Still, I have no problem describing Mary Poppins as a “beloved” film to many. And perhaps my ancient bias was a help to me in rooting for Emma Thompson’s acid-tongued P. L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks as she stubbornly resists the persistent Midwestern blandishments of Uncle Walt. The character resembles the non-nonsense nanny of the Mary Poppins books that Travers authored far more than Julie Andrews’ sweet onscreen version ever did, and she’s not a very nice person.
That’s quite a bracing change, and not just from the kid-friendly, everything-is-hunky-dory Disney aesthetic. Anyone familiar with Thompson’s extraordinary acting oeuvre knows that she falls into that category of great actresses who tend to get typecast as ethical, sympathetic, long-suffering heroines – though in Thompson’s case, “clever” generally gets thrown into the mix as well. She’s long overdue for a role like this: not a villain per se, but a cranky, negative, controlling, maddeningly difficult personality. And watching her get her teeth into that chewy role is, unsurprisingly, one of Saving Mr. Banks’s chief joys.
The primary narrative of the film is set during a fortnight in 1961 when Disney flew the reluctant Pamela Travers to Los Angeles: the last-ditch effort in a 20-year campaign, inspired by a promise to his daughters, to obtain the rights to make a movie based on (or as Hollywood would say today, “inspired by”) her Poppins books. Though Baby Boomers who grew up watching Uncle Walt himself doing the intro to his TV series every Sunday evening may never be satisfied with any simulation, Tom Hanks does as convincing a job as can be expected in recreating the folksy impresario of the House of Mouse. Hanks’s Disney is a believable blend of hard-driven, canny salesman and squeaky-clean, affable boss who never smokes in public and wants all his staff to call him by his first name (a policy that irritates the proper, businesslike Miss Travers no end).
The supporting cast of Disney Studios employees is also very fine, especially Paul Giamatti in the role of Travers’ goofily American assigned chauffeur. But it’s primarily Thompson who drives the 1961 wraparound story, and the movie would be worth seeing for her part alone. What brings things to a much more interesting level is the secondary narrative of flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in Australia, which actually take up as much screentime as the negotiations scenario.
When we first meet wee Ginty, as the young Helen Goff (Pamela Travers was a nom de plume) was nicknamed, she is sitting in a lush palm-framed garden making fairy houses from sticks, leaves and flowers. Her father Travers Goff (a winsome Colin Farrell) swoops down and carries her off into what is obviously an ongoing stream of fanciful chatter. We immediately see whence the lively imagination that inspired the books has sprung, and begin to wonder what ultimately went so dark as to turn the adult Helen/Pamela into such an embittered, self-protective creature.
It is in her memories of Australia, her frustrated banker father’s decline into alcoholism and her mother’s mental breakdown – memories revived in large part by Walt Disney’s avuncular manner, combined with the familiarly subtropical Southern California landscape – that we the audience come to understand what makes Travers tick. Therein also lies the key to a successful conclusion of negotiations; but Disney must first find a way to connect with the author on a level that taps both their inner children. And he must figure out how and why, by the big musical finale of his movie script, Mr. Banks must be saved.
For all Thompson’s sharp edges as P. L. Travers, Saving Mr. Banks is an unexpectedly moving tale in the end – even cathartic, without plunging into bathos. Travers reportedly ended up hating the Mary Poppins movie, even after agreeing to sell the rights, but the bit of sanitizing of history that goes on here seems forgivable in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it’s finally time, as its 50th anniversary draws near, for even this curmudgeon to bite the bullet and give Mary Poppins a second chance.