‘Saving Mr. Banks’ examines the making of ‘Mary Poppins.’ It was a critically acclaimed and financially successful Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in 1964. The target audience for ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is definitely baby boomers. Leave the kids at home. They won’t appreciate it. Instead, rent and enjoy the original ‘Mary Poppins’ that won five Academy Awards including Best Actress for Andrews. It’s a spectacular musical with clever special effects, catchy songs and brilliant storytelling that still holds up today. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ on the other hand, lays the saccharine on too thick and skews the facts. In actuality, the ‘Mary Poppins’ author P.L. Travers was so offended by the film, she refused to do business with Walt Disney ever again.
The story presents P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and her struggle in negotiating the film rights of her beloved children’s book series, ‘Mary Poppins’ with Hollywood mogul Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). In order to provide important backstory, the film shows flashbacks of Travers' childhood in Australia. It is not giving away any spoilers to say that the characters in ‘Mary Poppins’ are based on actual people in her life. These scenes of her as a young girl (played by Annie Rose Buckley) growing up with a loving but alcoholic bank manager father (Colin Farrell) and a weak-spirited mother (Ruth Wilson) are meant to shed light on the impetus for her novels. These flashbacks actually bog down the story and take away from the more interesting power struggle she had with Walt Disney.
The scenes that take place in 1961 are good. They show Travers living a comfortable life in an affluent neighborhood of London. Thompson’s performance is solid as the prissy author. Unfortunately, her book sales have dipped a bit and she finds herself in desperate financial straits. For over 20 years, Travers refused to sell the film rights of ‘Mary Poppins’ to Walt Disney’s relentless advances. With foreclosure looming on her home, Disney invites her to travel to Los Angeles and work out a deal on a film adaptation. This is where the story gets interesting. Director John Lee Hancock is spot-on with his vintage depiction of Los Angeles. When Travers lands at retro LAX airport, she is picked up by limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). Giamatti is wonderful in the role and provides the most uplifting portion (although it never happened) of the story.
The best scenes in the movie are when Travers sits down at Walt Disney studios with the screenwriter Don DiGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novack and Jason Schwartzman. She wants the proceedings recorded on tape. She hates animation and is adamant about any of ‘Mary Poppins’ being in a cartoon format. She is completely against the idea of the Penguins being animated and we all know who won that battle. Some may find Travers stubborn and overly protective. She’s rightfully justified since Hollywood is notorious for butchering great works of literature. The most fascinating aspect of the film is the fine line between artistic integrity versus commercialism. She was also against casting Dick Van Dyke in the lead role pompously calling him, “not one of the greats.” Van Dyke was actually outstanding as the Cockney chimney sweeper.
Tom Hanks plays the iconic Walt Disney with just the right amount of charisma. He insists on being called “Walt” instead of Mr. Disney. With a chummy social awkwardness, Walt calls Mrs. Travers “Pam” that annoys her to no end. When they tour Disneyland together, he hands out pre-signed autographed business cards. Walt had a mid-Western charm but he was also a shrewd businessman. You don’t become one of the most powerful moguls in Hollywood by letting people walk all over you. The film makes it look like they became friends but the truth is that Walt didn’t even invite her to the LA premiere of ‘Mary Poppins.’ She invited herself and at the screening she was not crying tears of joy but tears of sadness at how she felt they butchered her story. The film rewrites history and it’s a shame because the real P.L. Travers led a fascinating life. Instead of showing the postcard-looking childhood flashbacks, it would have been more interesting showing how she traveled the world studying Zen mysticism in Japan and studying mythology among Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo native American cultures that greatly influenced her writing. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is a two-hour commercial for Disney. Here is the official Disney movie trailer http://youtu.be/nijccxWvyXU.