“You think Mary Poppins is saving the children, Mr. Disney,” asks P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Travers’ question is the key to everything: key to the adapted ending of “Mary Poppins,” key to Travers’ acceptance of the production and key to get Travers to sign over her book’s rights. “Saving Mr. Banks” is the story of Travers’ childhood and how embattled she was 60 years later to sell her life’s work and dream.
She is a terribly frustrating, rough person that Mr. Disney has to pull out his hair to put up with. Settling in for her 11-hour flight to Los Angeles for a meeting 20 years in the making, a kind young mother gives up her overhead bag space for Travers, who isn’t having her things brought to the front of the plane — what most people would think is a commodity. The baby in the mother’s arms makes her even more upset. “She wont be a nuisance will she,” Travers asks, getting no response. She sits in her seat, closes her eyes and says: “I hope we crash.”
Travers is a challenge for Mr. Disney because she can’t be wined and dined. He decorates her hotel room with fruit baskets and Disney stuffed animals. He invites her on a tour of Disneyland as her personal tour guide, but she’s not interested. More often then not, we can’t stand her either, but if Thompson’s acting performance is one thing it’s consistent.
Hanks’ Walt Disney is a sad jester to Travers, though (surprisingly) we never hear the line “Humor me” come out of Travers’ mouth in the film. He’s offering her all the bells and whistles and we simply don’t understand why he puts up with it, besides some promise to his daughters to make this book a film. All of this is, of course, changed when the tables are turned. We know the answer to Travers’ rhetorical question way before Disney picks up on the clues because we’re seeing the intertwined story of Travers’ childhood.
Travers’ real name is Helen Goff. She had a very close relationship with her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), growing up, which led her to take his name later in life. The “Mary Poppins,” which she wrote, is so deeply rooted to her personal life that she can’t stand what the Disney filmmakers are preparing to do with Mr. Banks — aha, hint the title. She can’t understand why they’ve given Mr. Banks a mustache, when her father was all about having a silky smooth face.
It’s all very interesting. Unfortunately, “Saving Mr. Banks” also shows Hollywood flexing its muscles a bit. All this time, Mr. Disney is waiting on a contractual signature from Travers, but we’re just waiting for him to assert his dominance and wag his finger in her face. He’s putting up with her all of this time, but we sense that he has that kind of wild card in his hand. It’s disconcerting to see him go from a heart-to-heart moment with Travers to not inviting her to the premiere in order to “protect the movie.”
Supporting roles from Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti and BJ Novak are refreshers. Schwartzman’s Richard Sherman gives us the studio versions of “Mary Poppins” tunes. BJ Novak isn’t putting up with Travers’ shit. Giamatti is Travers’ driver and is a pleasant side story. The scenes between Thompson and Giamatti are sweet and lasting takeaways in the film, including a rare warm moment between the two as Thompson flees to London. The two actors have a easy chemistry on screen.
The music in the film is fantastic; of course, it’s glittered with songs from “Mary Poppins.” Sherman’s studio versions are fantastic. Thomas Newman did the music for the film and did a surprisingly better job than just marching the Poppins tunes out there. Also, the credits are fantastic — very “Argo”-like, playing around with real images and sound.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is more than two hours long and dragged along during some sequences. Lacing together the childhood story with the current day was a tough challenge and wasn’t always as balanced as it should’ve been, but few directors always get it right.
Mary Poppins fans should enjoy this film, even though it casts a shadow of the Disney classic at times. The actual footage at the premiere is appreciated at the end of the film, but we still struggle to understand why Travers didn’t want “Mary Poppins” to be a musical. Is it because she doesn’t seem like the person who enjoys music in general? Is it because she’s so sour? It could be that we’re so confused because we don’t know “Mary Poppins” any other way.
“Saving Mr. Banks”: ★★★