Creating art is difficult enough, but then when one must share that art and trust others with the creation, the process can be traumatic. It’s this process of trust and creativity that Saving Mr. Banks dramatizes: P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the Mary Poppins series was relentlessly courted by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for twenty years, and finally due to financial strains, the prickly author conceded to a series of meetings in Los Angeles. The result was a tortuous time for Disney and his employees as they try to put together a film of Travers’ character that would please the exacting and eccentric writer.
Working from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, director John Lee Hancock tells the audience two stories: the journey Mary Poppins takes from page to screen, but also the story of the horribly dysfunctional childhood that influenced Travers’ works and life. While in California, Travers is assigned to work with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to transform the Mary Poppins books into a family musical film. Highly skeptical and terribly suspicious, Travers sets an oppressive tone for the workshops by insisting on taping all the sessions, and quickly trashing all the ideas presented to her. Disney, intent on completing this film, works with fitful success as a mediator – but the guarded and reserved Travers has trouble trusting and working with the expansive and gregarious Disney.
At the basis of the disconnect between the entertainment mogul and the writer is a profound misunderstanding of the point of Mary Poppins. The title of the film, Saving Mr. Banks also serves as the key to what Travers was doing with her literary creation. Viewers are invited to her difficult childhood in the outback of Australia, where as a child she was doted upon by her fanciful but ineffectual father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), who dies a slow and agonizing death to his alcoholism. Her doomed family life was monetarily given some structure when her aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) blows into town, with Mary Poppins’ iconic umbrella, wide-brimmed hat, and carpet-bag. In an emotionally satisfying, but devastating scene, Disney figures Mary Poppins out – the iconic title character breezes into London to save the children’s father, a substitute for Goff. The two bond over their mutually disastrous childhoods, admitting to themselves that their storytelling was a way to right their awful backgrounds. It’s a pat way to explain their creativity, but it makes the flashbacks work.
And while the movie is a gooey love story to Disney and Mary Poppins, there is an art to it – mainly due to Thompson’s brilliant portrayal. She plays Travers with a gorgeous range of emotions, all simmering underneath the woman’s defensive shield of meanness. She’s a very unlikable woman, but not a monster because Thompson, with the aid of Marcel and Smith, creates a wounded person. Hanks has a tougher job because he’s playing an iconic historical figure. He wisely eschews mere impersonation, and creates a complicated man – kind, but with a steely edge always accessible (because Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney film, he never comes off as too bad). Neither Travers nor Disney were pushovers, and they clashed repeatedly, and Thompson and Hanks play these scenes wonderfully – Hanks generously steps aside and allows for his costar to dominate their scenes, and even if he’s somewhat overshadowed, he never fades away. The supporting cast is strong – Paul Giamatti shines in a smallish role as Travers’ chauffeur, though their scenes are little more than a Driving Miss Daisy retread.
Some will nitpick at the accuracy – even though the relationship between Disney and Travers is fraught with tension, the two eventually reach some sort of inevitable reconciliation, something that was reportedly untrue in real life (apparently, she was so unhappy with her experiences with Disney, that she refused to have anything else to do with the guy for the rest of her life). But that’s okay, because Saving Mr. Banks is satisfying nonetheless, when looked at as a piece of historical fiction, acting as a chronicle of Hollywood. And anchored by a wonderful turn by Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks is a thoroughly enjoyable film.