A film made by Disney about a somewhat unbridled conciliation between the mega-studio and an undaunted writer? Well, it goes without saying “Saving Mr Banks” has been crafted with a spoonful of sugar (or perhaps two!), but in this case, the overt sweetness that dangles from the celluloid effort’s tongue dots really does help the medicine go down.
Not so much a behind-the-scenes expose into the Hollywood movie-making process – a’la “The Player” – as it is a highly relatable human drama about grief, and memories that taint our forward movement, John Lee Hancock‘s film fixes on Australian author P.L Travers (a superbly cast Emma Thompson) and her determination not to let Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) turn her beloved, and very personal novel “Mary Poppins” into a movie (and of all movies, a musical!).
But there’s a reason behind Travers’ dogged determination not to let the breezy and obstinate Disney turn “Poppins” into a movie – and it’s got less to do with financials and egocentricity (though understandably, considering how rigid and stand-offish Travers comes across, most are quick to assume it’s simply that) and more to do with the woman’s inability to let go of past hurts, and her last remaining connection to her much-loved but very life-mislaid father (played in flashbacks by Colin Farrell, the best he’s been in years).
Travers travels from London to Hollywood where, after 20 years of back-and-forward phone calls and expected turn-downs, she agrees to meet Disney for a non-committal chat about turning her beloved children’s novel into a movie.
As the hoity, proper dramatist turns her nose up at anything and everything suggested by Disney and his crew – from the casting of Dick Van Dyke to the animated sequence planned for the film, but particularly the songs proposed for the movie – and not surprisingly, considering the author was dead against turning the movie into a musical – we, via insightful flashbacks to her years as a youth growing up in Queensland, Australia – begin to understand why Travers (not even her real name) is the way she is.
“Mary Poppins”, you see, isn’t the story of a magical, mysterious nanny coming to rescue ‘the children’ of the story, but their father – Mr Banks, an overworked, misread and largely-absent father. The family’s surname in the book is homage to Traver’s father’s livelihood – one he struggled to hold onto, especially once the beautifully-caring but crushed young parent began to struggle with alcoholism and addiction. While ‘Poppins’ was able to save the Banks family in the book, young Travers was unable – much to her consternation and disappointment – save her dearly loved father from succumbing to the harshness of the world, and predominantly, habit.
Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s Screenplay is funny, sure, and it’s also whimsical, and sanguine, but mostly, it’s heartbreakingly warm and very, very affecting. You’ll never be able to hear the lyrics to ‘Let’s fly a kite’ again, without thinking of a dozen obliterated tissues (in fact, excuse me for a moment…)
Undoubtedly, a lot has been left ‘out’ of the film – particularly moments that don’t make the studio’s grandpa look like Hollywood’s equivalent to Santa Claus (there’s no hint of it in the film but Disney was reportedly as bad tempered and as hard to get along with as Travers; we’re also not informed of the nastiness and bitterness between the author and studio chief that followed the film’s completion – namely, the author’s overall disappointment of the film, and her blacklisting of Hollywood from thereon), but when a film hits as many high notes as this one does, even historians will likely be OK with overlooking the inaccuracies and bullet point skippage.
Thompson is beautifully icy and condensing, and just plain mesmerising as the laughably surface-mean Travers, while Hanks quickly merges into the carcass of the frozen Disney maestro. Equally as good, the recognizable band of supporting players – from Paul Giamatti’s down-to-earth, sweet chauffer, to Jason Schwartzmann and B.J Novak as the musicians, the Shermans, Rachel Griffiths as the real-life nanny that inspired the title character in Travers’ book, and Bradley Whitford as flummoxed “Poppins” screenwriter Don DaGradi. It’s Colin Farrell who, after a string of duds and phone-in performances, that will benefit the most from his involvement in the film though, serving up a beautifully memorable, and powerfully poignant portrayal as the most important, and most loved man in Travers’ life, her father.
A superbly solid and welcomingly ‘nice’ antidote to the blockbuster virus of contemporary times, “Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t just a tour-de-force for Hanks, Thompson, and director Hancock (“The Blind Side”), but also Disney – who comes off looking a million bucks, retaining remake and sequel rights, manning full ownership in the musical compositions, and getting final cut.
In all serious, it’s supercalifragilistic – gotta say, could’ve done without those animated penguins though.