As with most films that say they are based on actual real life events, the many events that take place in director John Lee Hancock's new film Saving Mr. Banks, which chronicles the final days where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) tried to convince Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him create a film version of the very popular nanny, are best taken with a grain of salt (or a spoonful of sugar if you will). While many of the details may be toyed around with and the roadblocks that were built by Travers to prevent Disney from making a film adaptation of her beloved Mary Poppins are likely exaggerated, the film scores where it counts most with a whimsical tone and a truly heartwarming tale of a woman haunted by her past finally learning to let go and just fly a kite so to speak.
Like many fans who saw Walt Disney's Mary Poppins mostly during their childhood, very little was known about the production of the film beyond its dazzling effects (for its time that is), its catchy music and its somber but extremely uplifting message of a family deeply in need of rescuing. Furthermore, the actual story of Mary Poppins was much more complex than many ever gave it credit for, especially when it came to its original creator's intentions, which this film sees fit to rectify.
The film version of P.L. Travers depicts her as a very close minded and often times very brutish woman who thrives on being difficult. She has no family to speak of, her closest friend is her publicist of whom she doesn't consider as a friend, she always prefers to be called by Mrs. Travers almost insuring no one will ever get close to her and she has no intentions on ever letting anyone near her Mary Poppins. There is a mystery to her that must be unraveled in order to fully understand the woman behind the stubborn brute that she so loves to convey and there is only one man up to such an impossible task.
Walt Disney is the perfect foil for Travers as he likes to see the world through a completely different pair of lenses. He was the man who single handedly created happiness, marketed it and sold it to an entire population who were eager to feel happy and forget, if just for a moment, the problems that plague all of our lives from time to time. He was also the only man on the planet who had a shot at acquiring the Mary Poppins license, not just because of his warmth and likeable personality, but because of his tenacity along with his persistence.
Watching both of them together, attempting to break one another from who they are and their eventual connection that is made through some startling revelations is the key ingredient that helps the film sustain itself through many of its more obvious problems, none of which has anything to do with the professional relationship between Travers and Disney. Of course it is near impossible to talk about those two characters without mentioning the two talented actors they got to portray them, which was likely a tricky bit of casting.
Tom Hanks is an extremely gifted actor who has been blessed with the rare gift of being able to convey happiness, sadness and the warmth of a soul who can look you in the eyes and make you believe just about anything he says. Those skills are put to great use here as Walt Disney is a complex individual to play. It would be all too easy to show him as this happy fellow who just likes to smile all day and put a lid on it. But by casting Hanks in the role, despite him having very little physical similarities to Disney, he is able to recreate the warmth and generosity of the man in a way no other actor could and subtlety reminds us that Walt was indeed a flesh and blood human being as well, for better or worse.
Travers on the other hand is a person who most will have almost zero preconceived notions towards. Her mannerisms and her lifestyle remain a mystery to most leaving the door wide open for interpretation, and by casting Emma Thompson in the role the filmmakers have struck gold. Thompson is every bit an accomplished actor as Tom Hanks, but her role here, despite being less known and less held up to scrutiny, is in actuality much more complex and enigmatic that first meets the eye.
It's extremely difficult to play a character who must appear cold hearted and distant but still hold the audience's sympathy throughout until it becomes apparent what is really the culprit behind their absurd behavior. Thompson somehow is able to convey such impossible feats by simple looks and certain inflections in her tone of voice. Travers is a very complicated woman and Thompson plays her just right, giving us just enough hope that her chilly exterior will eventually be penetrated by the warmth of a generous soul.
Therein lies one of the few pitfalls of a film that is not only about Walt Disney and Mary Poppins, but is also made by Walt Disney studios. As if by some chance the world would discover that not everything we do is pure of heart, the film often times feels constructed from top to bottom to push an agenda down our throats, which is that Disney means happiness and happiness means Disney. The one character that is guilty of such sentimental intentions is Travers driver played by that fantastic chameleon of an actor Paul Giamatti (who couldn't be further from the horrible character he played in 12 Years A Slave).
While it's noble to include a character that is so true of heart that they can only see the best in everything that happens around them, from the skyline, to the books their children read, to the sunshine and finally, to a woman who is almost consistently horrible to him. The film in general has sporadic moments like this that do detract from the real drama of Traver's story, but thankfully the final act does dig a bit deeper and dredge up some honest emotional moments that will bring a tear to the eye of all but the most heartless of viewers.
The one area the film could have used some trimming however is with the consistent flashbacks to Traver's childhood. While they are without a doubt integral in telling the history of Traver's life which unlocks the mystery behind her staunch unwillingness to let Mary Poppins go. In these flashbacks we get to see the hard life of her parents (played by Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson) and how any of it actually ties in with her stories of Mary Poppins. There are some fantastic moments of real emotion that pop up, such as a speech that her father gives near the end and how it relates to a song in Poppins, but there is no denying that these flashbacks are a bit much at times.
Nearly half the film is taken up with these flashbacks which is rather startling when you think about how much it has been marketed around the idea of Walt Disney and his trying to get the rights to Mary Poppins. If perhaps these flashbacks had started with mere glimpses into Traver's history and eventually entire scenes later into the film then they wouldn't have felt nearly as intrusive as they do now. The flashbacks, while well done and comprised of some real talented actors, just needed to be cut back a bit.
While the road getting to the end is a bit bumpy and a bit too reliant on our own nostalgia towards Disney and Mary Poppins, the film as a whole comes together rather nicely. The final act, while a bit sappy in some regards to certain speeches made, is what brings it home and makes the journey worth it. While it shouldn't be considered the final word on the story of Mary Poppins, it should at the very least put a smile on your face and just a tinge of a tear in your eye.
The facts are a bit shaky, the storytelling a bit too sentimental for its own good and the flashbacks are a tad too cumbersome, but none of that detracts from what is otherwise a well intentioned, beautifully acted and just plain entertaining piece of film that helps us discover even more reasons to love P.L. Travers and Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. When the film you are watching ends and you immediately want to see the film that was being made within, then that is a success.