Emma Thompson shines as the woman behind Mary Poppins
It’s not the children she comes to save. It’s their father. It’s your father.
-Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Saving Mr. Banks
2013 | 2 hours | Dir. John Lee Hancock | Disney
You might think Mary Poppins is the most important character in Disney’s 1964 film of the same name. But another character helped inspire Walt Disney to bring the novel to the screen.
Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of the battle Walt Disney fought with Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers over the rights to Mary Poppins, one of Disney’s most beloved films.
Uptight Englishwoman Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson), never to be called by her first name, has withheld the rights to Mary Poppins from Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years. Now in the throes of bitter old womanhood, Travers finds herself in need of money and travels from England to Los Angeles to negotiate the rights with Mr. Disney. She has three steadfast stipulations: she wants complete control of the script, no animation, and no singing.
Anyone who has seen Mary Poppins knows those parameters fly out the window. Mary Poppins’ songs and animated sequences make it both memorable and innovative (where else can you find a word like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?). But Mrs. Travers staunchly opposes all things Disney, and Walt tries everything, from psychoanalyzing her to appeasing her ridiculous requests to taking her on a self- hosted trip to the Happiest Place on Earth.
The film cuts between sequences of Travers in the 60’s and scenes from Travers’ childhood. Mrs. Travers grew up Ginty Goff in turn- of- the- century Australia. She adored her father (Colin Farrell), a banker, but he suffered from alchoholism. Young Ginty sees her father disintegrate under the weight of the world before her eyes. Her mother flounders to support her family after Ginty’s father falls ill. Ginty’s aunt, the inspiration for Mary Poppins herself, swoops in with a carpetbag and tries to save the day.
Emma Thompson delights as the elderly Mrs. Travers. Even as a crotchety old woman, you never want to take your eyes of her. Her diction, mannerisms, and glib remarks light up every scene. Never has someone so unpleasant been so enjoyable to watch. Her wig, on the other hand, looks awful.
Tom Hanks, beloved as he is by audiences, barely passes as Walt Disney. He slips on a bit of Midwestern accent but looks too bulky and sounds too much like Tom Hanks to be believable as the man behind the Magic Kingdom. It feels like Tom showed up for the paycheck and didn’t care much about the role. But then, people seem to like Tom Hanks just as much as they like Walt Disney.
B.J. Novak (The Office) and Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore!) play the legendary Sherman Brothers, who wrote most of the songs in Disney’s films throughout the 50’s and 60’s. Find the film’s unsung hero in Schwartzman, who plays Dickie Sherman, the optimistic half of the duo. Dickie charms Mrs. Travers with “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”. Schwartzman, who moonlights as indie-pop outfit Coconut Records, oozes creativity and brings magic to his role. His character helps us understand why so many of Disney’s films were so enjoyable to both make and watch.
The film does have one fatal flaw: Saving Mr. Banks assumes everyone watching it has also seen Mary Poppins. The script doesn’t even mention Mary Poppins until about 20 minutes into the film, although it makes plenty of references. If you didn’t come in knowing the movie was about the making of Mary Poppins, or if you’d never seen Mary Poppins, you’d be completely lost.
The film meanders at times (two hours seems awful long for a making- of featurette) and the sets look as inauthentic as those of a 60’s movie, but the script subtly dissects the issues at the heart of Mrs. Travers. The film tackles both main characters’ issues with their fathers, and shows how both tried to reconcile their feelings through Mary Poppins’ Mr. Banks. In the end, Walt urges Mrs. Travers to empty a few items from her bottomless baggage. Mrs. Travers finally learns to open her heart to Disney, his film, and everything else. Bottomless baggage really only works for Mary Poppins herself.