Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti
This is a film by Disney on Walt Disney and on the making of one of Disney’s most-beloved films. So don’t be surprised at the spoonfuls of sugar Saving Mr Banks comes with. That Thompson still holds her own as the irascible P L Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, till the moist-eyed happy ending, is to her credit altogether.
And that’s despite the hamhanded identification of the Mary Poppins story with Travers’s own as a girl being raised in a small Australian town somewhere in the Outback. Hancock, the director of Oscar-winning The Blind Side (which was as un-subtle about manipulating its audiences), keeps switching between Travers as the girl Helen in 1901 in Australia’s Allora town, and Travers in Los Angeles in 1961. Nobody can miss the parallels between Helen’s loving father who calls her a princess and imagines himself as a Celtic poet at heart, but is actually a drunkard not able to look after his three young daughters and his helpless wife, and Mr Banks of the Mary Poppins story. But the film, based on a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, underlines that with almost every scene, explaining almost each worry line on Travers’s face to the pain she carries for her father (played by an excellent Farrell). You are also clearly pointed out the contours of how the Mary Poppins character took shape in Travers’s mind.
It’s the same baggage — her father telling her that money was a bad thing — that has made Travers hold out Walt Disney’s offers for 20 years to make a film on Mary Poppins. But now the money is running out, and so she agrees to come to the Disney studios and work on the project as long as she has the final say in the script. Her conditions include no songs, no cartoons, and she won’t let Mary become a flimsy floozy, her eyes closed to reality.
Saving Mr Banks is about how Disney wins Travers over, even as she works out her conflicting feelings about her father, learning to separate her love for him from her anger. What we get are two actors realising exactly what is needed of them, and excelling in what they do best. He is arms-wide-open fatherly, jovial, all-American, generous, friendly, avuncular. She is stiff, formal, totally English (“she’s actually Aussie!”, they later exclaim), almost regal, easily offended and as quick with offences. Disney is an irrestible force — as many would vouch — and Travers rather considers herself an implacable object. When the twain meet, Disney sidesteps the fireworks with a deftness that comes from being a successful businessman.
It’s a delight to watch the wooing of Travers by the Disney team, also including the scriptwriter of the Mary Poppins film Don DaGradi and the lyricist-musician duo of the Sherman brothers. She spars over everything from Mr Bank’s moustache to the dancing penguins, and it’s a nice observation into what an artist feels letting go of his or her life’s work. One can see the little girl in that ageing woman almost at every turn.
In Hanks, Disney is a man as proud and as confident of his own achievements, complete with a glint in his eye, a spring in his step and pre-signed visiting cards in his pocket as he takes a squirming Travers on a tour of Disneyland.
Much liberties have obviously been taken with what happened over those meetings in Los Angeles, and you can’t help the sneaking feeling that an old woman may have found herself helpless against the Disney behemoth. However, in this Disney world, Travers is not just along for the ride.