As a love letter to Mary Poppins – as far as I’m concerned one of the greatest films ever made – Saving Mr Banks succeeds admirably. The main attraction is a tremendous central performance from Emma Thompson as the spiky PL Travers, whose extreme reluctance to hand over the Mary Poppins film rights to Walt Disney is the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Finding herself short of money, Travers finally agrees to meet with Disney (played here by Tom Hanks at his most charming), but finds herself in constant disagreement with his vision for the story, along with that of screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and music legends the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak).
On this evidence, it is astonishing that Mary Poppins was made at all, but with Disney on an all-out charm offensive, Travers was eventually won over – in spite of her subsequent, well-documented dislike for the film. Apparently she loathed the animated sequence, didn’t think it should be a musical, and was dismayed at how Disney removed all the darker edges of the original text.
In truth, Disney’s actions during the making of the film are justifiable for one critical reason – he created something brilliant in its own right. The novels remain a much more sinister, edgier experience but of course the film has become a classic – one loved by generations for decades. Mary Poppins the film is nigh-on perfect and it is very difficult to suggest that it needs to be darker with a straight face. Besides, the books don’t have all those wonderful songs.
There is a moment in this film – I’ve no idea whether or not it is apocryphal – where Travers first hears the song Lets go fly a kite and is suddenly all but won over to what Disney is trying to do with her material. What the scene demonstrates is the extraordinary power of that song. It somehow conveys exhilaration and sheer joy in a way that few other musical pieces do (the only equivalent example I can think of is John Williams’ Flying theme from ET).
At the core of the film is a moving story about Travers’ past, revealed through flashbacks that detail her relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). She and Disney ultimately draw on the tragic experiences of their respective fathers to create the stunningly feel-good ending for the film. The power of storytelling and myth as an instrument of healing in a flawed, broken world is a key theme, and one that I think will resonate with anyone, regardless of their love (or otherwise – there are some and I feel sorry for them) for Mary Poppins.
Again, I have no idea how true any of this really is. I suspect is it certainly true in spirit, but although Thompson delivers a very plausible version of Travers, I rather imagine Disney has had his edges taken off, for fear of damaging the brand. There are occasional hints of a darker side (at one point DaGradi is heard to utter “Man is in the forest” just before Disney bursts into one of their meetings), but on the whole the Uncle Walt represented here is unambiguously benevolent.
Ironically, my favourite part of the film did not concern Travers relationship with Disney, but her relationship with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). And yet again, I’ve no idea how true it is, but I found his humble kindness, along with the small moments of wisdom he offers, to be as fine an example of Christ-likeness I have seen in any film this year.
All things considered, Saving Mr Banks is a fine companion piece to one of the greatest family films ever made.