Despite what one may think after seeing Saving Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers never did end up liking the film adaptation of her most famous work. She hated it with a passion. Any historical account of the matter will let you know that. But then what is the duty of a film like this one? Is it ok to subvert the truth for the sake of telling an entertaining story?
Well, yes and no, would be my answer to this one. To the film’s credit, they don’t actually show Ms. Travers’ reaction after the film, which saves them from rewriting history more than they are already. But director John Lee Hancock is a master of emotional manipulation, as previously seen in his supremely manipulative sports drama The Blind Side. The results are much less egregious here, due in part to an extremely tight ensemble of actors, led by Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.
For those who don’t already know, Saving Mr. Banks is a dramatic retelling of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) acquired the rights from P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to adapt her book of Mary Poppins to the big screen. She objects to many elements of the film that ended up staying in, like the animated sequence with the penguins, and the very fact that the film would be a musical. Her scenes in the rehearsal room working with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively) provide much of the humor and wit that keeps the film afloat, as well as Travers’ personal driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti).
So where does that oh-so-successful emotional manipulation come in? It’s all thanks to the juxtaposition of this humorous Hollywood scheming with the story of Travers’ growing up in Australia dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). It’s a device that surprises you with how resonant it feels in comparison to the movie-making scenes in the film. Especially powerful is the scene where the Sherman Brothers present a song about Mr. Banks singing about banking, which cuts back and forth with Traver’s father drunkenly presenting a similar speech about a county fair. Perhaps a bit too on the nose with its presentation of Travers’ father as the clear inspiration for this story, it gives the story an emotional spine that has enough strength to hold up the film. Not to mention Tom Hanks bringing his natural charm to Mr. Disney, and Emma Thompson providing a magical balance of wit and emotion that lets us truly see the struggle she is going through in having these tragically personal characters of hers be taken away from her bit by bit.
There are much better films, and much worse films this year than Saving Mr. Banks. But the performances alone make this film worth viewing. The film may not have all the real facts about the Disney-Travers relationship, but if you just take the film for entertainment’s sake, I hope you’ll have a good time. If not, just go fly a kite afterwards.