I’ll begin this review by saying that Mary Poppins is, and always will be, my favourite Disney film of all time, quite possibly my favourite film full stop. For as long as I can remember the poster for the movie has been a fixture on my bedroom wall, and I will challenge anyone to a pop quiz regarding song lyrics and/or dialogue. With upwards of five viewings a week as a child, I pretty much know everything there is to know about the film in its ‘on screen’ capacity. What I know less about, though, is the story behind the cinematic magic. The extent of my knowledge regarding the making of the film and the relationship between Poppins author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney was that it was not the most fruitful and friendly of partnerships. Just how bad, though, could it have been behind the scenes of one of the most joyous and uplifting motion pictures of all time? As it turns out, at times, really bad.
Saving Mr. Banks, in a nutshell, details the story of the relationship between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney in his attempts to buy the rights to the Mary Poppins novels in order to create the motion picture he promised his daughters some twenty years previously. What ensues is an almighty clash of personalities between the man who conquered the world with a cartoon mouse and a stoic, abrupt woman who, rather ominously, has no time for animation and sing-song. Many scenes are devoted to the constant butting of heads between the two visionaries and song writers Robert and Richard Sherman, and it is through these scenes that the film is given its comedic edge. Mrs. Travers’ absolute unwillingness to accept any jollification and compromise becomes a master class by the film makers in finding hilarious ways to say no again and again without ever becoming repetitive. In opposition to the humour and colour of 1961 Los Angeles, the film makes regular flashback visits to early twentieth century Australia and Travers’ childhood. In these segments we learn of her devotion to a father who through the course of her younger years falls to alcoholism, and through this somewhat tragic childhood the audience begin to empathise with the character and understand her unwillingness to surrender control to the one thing in her life that is exactly how she wished it to be. It is interesting to note that what eventually wins Mrs. Travers over is the very same aspect of Mary Poppins that won over me and millions of others across the world, the music. The use of the original film’s songs along with many subtle references to Mary Poppins made through cinematography, props and dialogue work to make Saving Mr. Banks feel like a great big warm hug for all fans of the 1964 masterpiece.
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are both absolutely brilliant in their respective roles. Hanks’ Disney is as seductive, persuasive and savvy as you would expect a man at the head of such a gargantuan empire to be. There was arguably a great danger of such a portrayal becoming somewhat caricaturesque, but in the hands of an actor like Tom Hanks, Walt remains human and believable throughout. The real star performance of the film, though, belongs to Emma Thompson in her portrayal of Mrs. Travers. Rivalled perhaps only by Dame Maggie Smith in her ability to project that exquisite type of restrained neuroses that is quintessentially British, Thompson’s Travers walks that fine line between composure and chaos. Hard and unmoving at times yet never unlikeable, this comes from the vulnerability that Thompson is able to portray whilst simultaneously remaining as stoic a character as you’ll see all year. The chemistry created by the two is at heart of the film, a shared and growing respect for one another that against the odds rises through disagreement of virtually every aspect of their joint filmmaking process.
However, if I were to say that the film is completely without flaws, I would be lying. There is without a doubt a substantial degree of sugarcoating going on with regards to how volatile a process the whole project was, and certain artistic liberties have been taken regarding L.P. Travers’ true feelings about the final product. Though not a completely accurate account, I believe the decisions made here are truly beneficial to this film, the 1964 film and the Poppins legacy as a whole. There is certainly enough tension and disagreement depicted for the audience to be given the gist of just how hard it was for Mary Poppins to be made without tarring the image and memories that millions have and cherish involving the picture, something that a warts and all story from either Disney’s or Travers’ truer perspective may have done. One must not forget that this is a film made by the Disney corporation about the Disney corporation, showcasing the inner workings of the Disney corporation. They were never going to show us anything that would jeopardise their reputation.
With regards to the duality of the plot, I could have done with fewer flashback scenes set in Australia. Obviously, it is vital for some background information to be provided to make Mrs. Travers’ character and her subsequent actions understandable, but honestly, the amount of arguably menial set pieces that are dedicated to her childhood are detrimental to film’s pace and momentum. The real magic of the picture is in the relationships between Travers, Disney and the Sherman brothers and all of the complimentary scenes that take place in 1961 across London and Los Angeles. It was during the scenes in Australia that the subtlety of the references I praised previously became less so, in fact at times becoming rather heavy handed and on a couple of occasions cringe worthy.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that Saving Mr. Banks in its entirety is a great film that is so very close to being perfect. Whilst Gravity remains my favourite cinematic experience of the year, this may very well turn out to be the picture that I truly enjoyed the most. It could just be nostalgia playing tricks on me, but those many scenes involving the Sherman brothers playing that glorious music that I know oh so well, the slow but sure softening of Pamela Lyndon Travers towards the joy of ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’, the climactic set piece depicting her emotional reaction at the film’s premiere, those moments were some of the most magical I can remember experiencing for a long, long time.