Review: Saving Mr. Banks

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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+.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

11 responses »

  1. Thank you for review, but I think you’ve missed the gene on this one (haha. just kidding, but I hope this catches on as a GEE catchphrase)

    I don’t see that this movie is meant to show Walt as P.L.’s savior – he’s very flawed, has no idea what to do when someone doesn’t agree with him, and must resort to manipulation (many times) to get what he wants. He smokes, drinks, & has a nasty cough. Uncle Walt is far from perfect and we share Mrs. Travers’s incredulity at times such as when he hands out pre-autographed cards. The story he tells at the end of his father is true (as related by Walt) but in real life he didn’t follow her back to England – I read they talked on the phone.

    I also don’t see Travers here as being all about the money. Her agent convinces her to go because of the money, but the story lets her leave LA with (seemingly) no intent on signing over the rights. This film smoothes out her rough edges and makes her much more of a whole & likeable person than accounts I’ve read. Friend of Travers, Brian Sibley, has a good summation: http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/film/writer-brian-sibley-on-saving-mr-banks-and-the-unmade-sequel-to-mary-poppins-8966198.html

    The character of the limo driver had to be created to give her (and the audience) some sort of emotional journey, otherwise I don’t think the one dancing “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” scene would have been enough (though Colin Farrell certainly helped). I think she emerges better than you feel. I found the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” flashback intercuts to be especially poignant. And although she did cry during the premiere I read it was right away during the title sequence when she realized Mary Poppins now “belonged” to Walt Disney.

    After watching, I couldn’t help but feel that the dealings (true & mythical) between Disney & Travers surely served as a warning and blueprint for J.K. Rowling’s involvement & handling of the Potter films.

  2. Joe, while your reply does not change my mind, I appreciate it for being well thought out and rancor free. I think Disney comes off pretty well, despite the smoking and handing out cards, and that what comes through strongest is that the resulting movie of Mary Poppins was worth whatever hell Travers had to go to get it. And, if we are to believe the film, she would have never gone to L.A. in the first place if it weren’t for money issues. If she’d invested more wisely, no Supercalifragilisticxpaliodocius.

    It’s funny, I liked this movie while I was watching it–initially I had it a B+; it was only after stewing about it for a while that I liked it less and less.

  3. That was aimed at me, wasn’t it?

    I felt she didn’t need to go for the money, either. She made no qualms about simply walking away. I think the movie never built the characters strongly enough. I understood Travers, and her ability to see things for perhaps what they really were, and how hollow and ridiculous things are and that being a curmudgeon is how some aren’t afraid to be. I thought the movie did well sketching it out, but I really felt the jumping between time periods only added to the muddle, and if we could have watched these two spar with better written scenes, we might come to understand just why she was such a hard ass and just how Disney managed to get through to her. I don’t know, maybe I’m not saying it right.
    And I immediately scoffed at the idea Disney would go there to see her. Puh-leeze, in the immortal vernacular of Armond White.

  4. How did Rowling handle the Potter films? I thought she pretty much just gave oversight but in the end, understood they were just interpretations of her books. But I certainly wouldn’t know, I know very little about the series, but I remember somewhere in an interview her talking about how well they did the adaptations, and it just didn’t sound like someone who had a great hand in crafting the movies. I’m likely wrong, though.

  5. Rowling said no to many studios until WB finally relented on letting her retain rights to the individual characters. There will be no spinoffs or “Young Harry Potter: Zombie Hunter” for some time unless she does it herself (Fantastic Beasts). She required the actors to all be British (no Dick Van Dyke..haha) and had a good measure of individual casting approval & final script approval. Everyone downplays her involvement for publicity but in reading everything you can tell she had plenty of say.

    It’s funny, I liked this movie while I was watching it–initially I had it a B+; it was only after stewing about it for a while that I liked it less and less.

    A full letter drop? That’s some stew ;-) I will await your thoughts on Frozen for further Disney-fied discussion

  6. “Hella good?”
    “Wazoo?”

    …maybe not the strongest terms to make a rational point.
    The Jungle Book was a racist statement?

  7. Some people think so, mostly because of the King Louie number, which could appear to some as a black man singing that he wants to be white. Of course, Disney was dead by the time it came out, and the racist/colonialist belongs mostly to Kipling.

  8. That blog post lost me at the second sentence in the abstract which is a fragment (though I did read the whole thing). A person needs to be a special kind of racist to think that King Louie and his song is akin to a black man singing that he wants to be white. Louis Prima is white (Italian) and sang in his style, Mowgli is a person of non-descript color (though not white), so one would only get to the conclusion by thinking monkey/ape = black person and “man’s red fire” had to be a white man and not the boy or his tribe. This type of thinking is something I had never heard of until the Internet, though I now know it was prevalent in previous periods. I don’t know how prevalent it was in 1967, but even if that was the whole intention, it is lost on most, if not all children, and certainly all modern audiences (unless they harbor those racist ideas).

  9. You’re right, Joe, but bear in mind that Disney was going to use Louis Armstrong for that role, but thought better of having a black man sing the part of an ape, so it was certainly on people’s minds back then.

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