When my children were younger, we must have watched the Disney classic live-action film Mary Poppins dozens of times. It’s light, it’s sweet, it has some great songs, and even now I find myself referencing the “practically perfect in every way” scene with my teen. It also had a ghastly performance by Dick Van Dyke too: his Cockney accent is atrocious, just painful to hear, but that’s another discussion entirely.
What people who watch Mary Poppins doubtless don’t know is that there’s quite a backstory behind Disney getting the rights to make a movie – and a musical, at that – from the book’s original author, the famously reclusive P.L. Travers. Saving Mr. Banks is about the protracted negotiations and creative efforts of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and songwriting brothers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) to produce a workable film script with the increasingly obstinate Travers (Emma Thompson).
Travers, we learn, had a very difficult childhood in the outback of Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, with an alcoholic ne’er do well father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) and a rather hapless mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson). When her father becomes ill, Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) joins them on the ranch and she’s vibrant, full of life, and constantly staying things like “let’s go, spit spot!” and “that just won’t do!”. But her bluster doesn’t save Travers, and his death permanently scars young Helen Lyndon Goff (who later uses the pen name of P.L. Travers, in homage to her long dead father).
The book Mary Poppins is about a nanny who similarly breezes into a troubled family, but in the work of fiction, the father — Mr. Banks (played in Mary Poppins by David Tomlinson) – is saved and returns to his adoring children before it’s too late. Quite unlike P.L.’s own childhood.
A complex character, a troubled backstory, and the charismatic Walt Disney. What else could we ask for in a movie? And therein lies the fundamental problem with Saving Mr. Banks: it’s too simple, P.L. is too easy figured out, and by Walt Disney of all people (a genius famous for his own eccentricities and quirks) and the entire movie plays more like a film version of Psychology Today or some pop psych guru’s standard diagnosis, “It’s all about yer muzzer unt fazzer, ja?”
Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t without its pleasures. The 1906 Australian outback is nicely portrayed (even if I started hoping Mad Max would appear to shake things up) and the scene where Walt takes P.L. to Disneyland was great fun, looking at how the signage and outfits were changed to match that era. There’s also an inside joke worth mentioning: when we first meet Walt Disney he quickly stubs out his cigarette and says “we wouldn’t want me to be setting a bad example or anything!” That was added because the MPAA threatened to give the film a more restrictive rating if there was too much smoking on screen. Snarky. Nice.
Of special note is the performance of the always enjoyable Paul Giamatti as Ralph, the limo driver hired by Disney to chauffeur Travers around Hollywood when she visits the motion picture studio. Unassuming and meek, his humility and unselfconscious “American” charm gradually wins over Travers in a way that neither Walt nor the Sherman brothers ever accomplish.
Ultimately, though, I can’t really recommend Saving Mr. Banks for anyone but the most earnest of Disney fans. There’s no behind-the-scenes of the making of Mary Poppins (though there are some great archival photos woven through the closing credits, so do stay for that) and there’s no great insight into Walt’s life or how he worked with the Disney team back in the early 1960s.
The psychology is at times laughably superficial, and while both Hanks and Thompson turn in good performances, Hanks is too pleasant as Disney and Thompson? Well, she plays Travers as a curmudgeonly and bitter old woman who finds fault with everything, so much that it’s hard to believe Disney didn’t just abandon the project outright after a single meeting.
In the end, Saving Mr. Banks should perhaps have been more accurately titled “The Making of ‘Mary Poppins’ According to Disney”.