I wish I was a fly on the wall during the pitch meeting for Saving Mr. Banks. It is an odd topic to make into a film; in fact it is an odd teaming of producing partners (Walt Disney Pictures and BBC Films). Even the title is odd and awkward for it has a precarious connection to the character Mary Poppins along with sounding too much like another Tom Hanks film, Saving Private Ryan. The difference between the two movies is that one takes place on the battlefields of World War II while the other one focuses on battles done on the Disney back lot.
Saving Mr. Banks shifts from early twentieth century rural Australia to 1961 London and Los Angeles. The movie opens with Mrs. (she is a stickler for the Mrs.) P. L. Travers in a financial fix. No longer producing her signature Mary Poppins books, she is either going to lose her home or make nice with the House of Mouse. The crux is that Walt Disney has been after her for twenty years to sell him the rights to make a Poppins film but she has never acquiesced and even now with the threat of losing her home Travers does not know if she can trust Disney with her creation. While she struggles with indecision, back in La-La land Disney has a team of writers working on a script, along with accompanying songs, in anticipation that financial straits and a trip to the happiest place on earth will change Travers’ tune.
For me the biggest selling point of the film was the idea of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson working together. Perhaps it is the nature of their usual screen personas, but I can’t imagine many movie projects where these two would be paired. The central theme of the film is about Travers coming to terms with her childhood. Hanks fills out Disney in the way I suppose most of us want to think of Uncle Walt and not as Meryl Streep recently said of him at a recent awards show; an alleged sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic person. In fact in one scene he soliloquys about the harsh winters in Kansas City and as a proud resident of our wonderful town my heart felt like it might explode. Yes, I may be deluding myself, but I prefer to think of Disney as exhibiting the prejudices of his time of which he would have eventually thrown off if he had lived longer.
As mentioned earlier, the film reflects back to Travers’ childhood in Australia. It is here that we see glimpses of the various elements that inspired Mary Poppins. It is also revealed why Travers comes off as harsh and unmoving. Colin Farrell plays Travers Goff who is the imaginative loving father of the future author. However when he isn’t being the best daddy in the world he is a drunken lush of a bank manager whose escapades have resulted in the family literally moving to the end of the line, train that is, in Allora, Australia. One gets the idea that part of Travers’ dislike for L.A. is because it reminds her of Australia which opens up old wounds.
For the record the acting find of Saving Mr. Banks has to go to Annie Rose Buckley (who played the younger version of Travers). She basically stole every scene she was in.
Overall Saving Mr. Banks is a vanilla sort of movie. It’s hard not to like it, but also it isn’t going to inspire one to be a better person, book the next flight out to a Disney park, or even take out the trash. It is a pleasant cinematic experience with a storyline that hopes viewers won’t take too close a look at because the relationship between Disney and Travers did not end in such a tidied up big red bow way. I suppose I won’t be giving too much away to write the film suggests that Mrs. Travers eventually was swept away with the idea of the magic of Disney. I mean why else would someone cart a chair sized stuffed Mickey Mouse across a continent and an ocean if not for a newfound appreciation of childlike fun? The truth of the matter was…*SPOILER ALERT THAT WILL TAKE AWAY YOUR LIGHTHEARTED FEELINGS ABOUT THE FILM’S CONCLUSION* Travers hated Disney’s version of Mary Poppins. So much so that into her 90s when offered the opportunity of a Mary Poppins stage musical she stipulated that only English born writers could work on the production and that the Sherman Brothers, who penned the songs and lyrics for the film, were not allowed to submit any tunes. She did agree that their original film songs could be included. And just to make sure her wishes were obeyed she wrote those points down in her last will and testament.
In conclusion, P.L. Travers was gangster mean. When she said she wanted no animation in Mary Poppins what she really meant was that she wanted no wire hangers.
The nice surprise about Saving Mr. Banks is that it has a lot of familiar faces playing secondary roles; Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, Kathy Baker, Rachel Griffiths, and Paul Giamatti. The film has a lot of light humor and Disney nostalgia (remember those double helium balloons with the one balloon shaped like Mickey inside another balloon?). I recommend it if you are looking for a post-holiday movie that doesn’t have bloodshed or a supernatural being birth from a stranger’s loins. I think it will play just as well on DVD and cable. I hope that when it does make its cable debut it is paired with Mary Poppins as a double feature because I have a hankering to see those animated dancing penguins again. (Travers really, really, really hated those dancing penguins.)