Here’s an idea for a TV show–each week, Walt Disney, the movie-genius and creator of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, dispenses dime-store psychoanalysis and cracker-barrel wisdom, alleviating some poor soul’s misery. It can be called Touched by a Mogul. The pilot has already been made–Saving Mr. Banks–in which Uncle Walt, using fairy dust and snappy tunes, makes the author P.L. Travers stop feeling guilty about her father’s death.
That’s basically what this film is about. As one might expect, a film from the Disney company is pretty high on their sire, as Mr. Disney is portrayed, by Tom Hanks, as avuncular, a great boss, and with unerring taste in what makes a great film. The only thing we can tut-tut about in this film is that he smokes.
P.L. Travers, the author who created Mary Poppins, doesn’t fare so well. By all accounts, she was a miserable human being, but she deserved better treatment than this. As played with tightly-coiled stridency by Emma Thompson, she is seen as an alien, the only person in the film who isn’t charmed by Disney and his Pollyanna worldview. If Travers, who died in 1996, had problems with the film of Mary Poppins, she must be twirling in her grave right now.
Travers, who was a girl in Australia, is just about out of money. Disney, promising his daughters that he would make a movie of her book, has been pursuing the right for 20 years. Because of her financial plight, she decides to collaborate on the project, meeting with the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and the composers the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). She objects to almost everything, from the mustache on Mr. Banks to the color red. She is especially opposed to turning it into a musical and any animation.
But she is worn down by Disney, who gets almost every concession, and since the film is today seen as a classic (rightly so) Travers is set up as some kind of monster–after all, who would hate the Disney brand? When she enters her hotel room, she is faced with a menagerie of Disney stuffed animals, including Winnie the Pooh. When she discards it she mutters, “Poor A.A. Milne.” A good line, but fraught with meaning. Are we to agree with her, or to laugh at her misguided beliefs?
The film cuts back and forth between the creation of the film, and Travers’ continual objections, to her girlhood in Australia, where she is the daughter of an alcoholic bank manager (Colin Ferrell) and an overwhelmed mother. It turns out that Mr. Banks is based on her father, and that there was a real Mary Poppins, her aunt, who came to live with them when her father was ill. Thus the characters have a special meaning for her, as she is reluctant to see them reduced to animals in Disney’s stable.
I must admit I choked up a few times at this film–I’m not made of stone. The scene in which Travers watches the film and breaks down in tears is moving, if not shamelessly manipulative. The film leaves out what happened next: Travers approached Disney with suggestions on how to improve the film. Disney responded, “That ship has sailed, Pam,” and walked away. He had what he wanted.
The film will charm many. Its scenes of how the Sherman brothers worked are interesting (such as the derivation of “A Spoonful of Sugar”) and some of the dusty scenes of Australia seem authentic. But overall the film has that annoying Disney quality–that the replica is better than the original. I found scenes with Paul Giamatti, as Travers’ driver, to be painfully awkward.
Thompson has an impossible job to play Travers. To erase any doubt of what we are seeing, tapes are played after the credits of the actual meetings with the creative team. But the climactic scene, in which Disney, like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting telling Matt Damon, “It’s not your fault,” while well-written, seems wholly phony. I found it interesting to read an interview with Tom Hanks, saying no one knows what finally convinced her to sign away the rights, but he thinks it was probably money. So the actor himself didn’t believe what he was playing. And the fact that if she had had money there would be no film of Mary Poppins is kind of sad.
I give the film a slight recommendation for it’s overall look, the nostalgic quality of the original film (we get welcome scenes from it), and the raw emotion, but I can’t help but finding the whole thing distasteful.
My grade for Saving Mr. Banks: C+.