Another adaptation from The Main Four. I’m reusing some stuff due to the whole beginning of the school year thing, so look for the brand new stuff in a few weeks. I promise this is at least quality though, so if you haven’t already read it, check it out! This movie, consequently, ended up on my Top 12 list (if you haven’t already, see it here), and you’ll see why in this very detailed review.
When I walked into the theater a few days before Christmas last year, ready to see the lighthearted, fun-filled new movie Saving Mr. Banks, I realized that the rating on the marquee was PG-13. I couldn’t figure out why a movie about the making of Mary Poppins – one of my all-time favorites – would exclude younger viewers.
I left the theater shocked. Not only did I understand the rating which had previously confused me, but I also felt that I had been mislead by the movie’s advertisements. The scenes marketed were humorous and oozed Disney flair. It looked to me like a light, satisfying take on the behind-the-scenes of an old classic.
The movie starts off alternating between the struggle faced by P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) as she makes and regrets the decision to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) about handing over the rights to her beloved Mary Poppins, and a flashback which is unidentified to the viewer.
Travers is a bitter English woman who does not wish to leave her home to go to America, where she is sure Mr. Disney will destroy her story. She reluctantly travels to Los Angeles to oversee the film based on her book, convinced by her lawyer when he reminds her that she hasn’t signed over the rights yet, and she can say no at any moment.
The simultaneous flashback centers around a young girl and her obviously strong relationship with her father. It begins as the man up and moves the whole family to a new city to start their life over. Her mother is distraught, and leaves their previous home with tears, but the three daughters joyously follow their fanciful, imaginative father.
At this point in both storylines, I was still obliviously cheery about the movie I’d chosen.
Travers and Disney begin to butt heads more and more on the creative process – among many ridiculous changes, Travers insists that the movie not contain the color red, at which point the other members of the creative team realize that Walt does not have the rights.
The weight of the movie is yet to hit me, and then the flashback returns.
The brilliance of this movie is found in the connection between Travers and the little girl in the past. Thanks to the information given to the public before the movie was even debuted, it’s no secret that the little girl is Travers, and her father is the Mr. Banks of Mary Poppins. What the previews don’t tell you is that “Mr. Banks” is a raging alcoholic, and Travers’ mother is driven to near suicide by his drinking. I feel no guilt revealing these facts to the unsuspecting public. I wish that I had known before entering the theater that Mary Poppins could make me break down in tears. Twice.
It was a tricky thing, putting the person Walt Disney into a movie. Amazingly, it humanized the icon. To be cute, it showed us the man behind the curtain. This was something that director John Lee Hancock was sure would be discouraged. At one point during Mr. Banks, Travers bursts through Walt’s office doors unexpectedly, and finds him smoking. He quickly distinguishes the cigarette and tells her that he doesn’t like anyone to see his bad habit. In another scene, he insists on a scotch at five in the afternoon. As Hancock told the Huffington Post, “I loved everybody at Disney, so it’s not as though I didn’t trust them or anything like that. I was just wary because their brand is so important to them, and he is the brand.” Personally, I loved it. The way I see it, Walt Disney has always been portrayed as a man of imagination and magic. And try as one might, no one can actually be a man of imagination and magic twenty four hours a day like he always seemed. That always made me a little skeptical of his real intentions. Now that I know he was a real, flawed person, I actually have more respect for him than I did before.
The acting in this movie was flawless. Emma Thompson’s character has a ridiculously layered personality, plus the added challenge which an actor is presented with when they have to be a real person. One of Travers’ requirements in the making of Mary Poppins was that all of her conversations with the Sherman brothers (Disney’s lead musical advisors, and the composers of the soundtrack for Mary Poppins) and Don DaGradi (the co-screenwriter of Mary Poppins who composed the original script) be recorded on tape so that her requests were never ignored or forgotten. In an interview with NPR, Thompson describes how helpful the original tapes were in helping her to recreate such a dynamic woman: “The tapes were hugely influential and helpful, because you can hear the distress in her voice. …She was so defended and so blocked. And so you can hear the psychological tension; it’s all written into the voice, as it were.” Thompson absolutely captured the tension and the distress in her representation of Travers. I felt stressed out when she spoke. As the movie progresses, the layers of Travers begin to peel away. Thompson does a phenomenal job showing the contrast between the bitter, sardonic woman at the beginning of the movie; and the childishly emotional, exposed woman seated in front of Walt Disney at the premiere of Mary Poppins at the end of the movie. My tears were brought on almost solely by the conviction in hers.
It seems a bit silly to leave Mr. Banks out of all of this. After all, the movie really is about him. Once again, it’s not a big reveal that Mr. Banks of Mary Poppins is based on Travers’ father, and she and her father are the little girl and the man in the flashbacks. The characterization of this man is incredible. Somehow, this movie managed to present a man who drank himself into oblivion and destroyed the lives of his wife and oldest daughter, as Travers saw him. His actions were retched, the things he asked of Travers (or “Ginty”, as he called her) were horrendous, and yet, I never felt any hate for him. I never blamed him for what happened to his family. I looked at this man with a strange admiration and love that only a daughter would feel for a father. In the end, I truly wanted Mr. Banks to be saved.
And throughout the entire movie, there still was that bit of Disney flair and fancy that I came into the theater expecting. When the Sherman brothers sing their original idea for the opening song, and they come to the word “responstible” (a word they invented to create a good English rhyme), Travers asks them to “un-make it up.” The brothers glance at each other with looks of fear, and Richard pushes the sheet music for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” behind the stack.
And although I was crying my heart out at multiple points in the movie, I left smiling, because it was the happiest ending I could have imagined. The Walt Disney Company has always been the definition of “heartwarming”, and that’s because Walt Disney put his heart into every movie he made. Mary Poppins was released two years before Disney’s death, and he pursued P.L. Travers for twenty years of his career – until practically the end of his life – so that he could put his heart into yet another story to which he was one hundred percent devoted. Saving Mr. Banks does not lack the heart that Disney has always embodied. In a way that is different than the others, however, it gives an appreciation to how much Walt Disney believed in his movies, and just how real imagination can truly be.