I have three problems with SAVING MR. BANKS, only one of which springs from knowing how much of the story has been Disney-fied. A feature film is not real life, even when based as this one is on actual events if for no other reason, as someone once said, real life doesnt have to make sense. But trying to make sense of the contentious wooing and winning of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers by Walt Disney has more than enough rich cinematic material to make a compelling film. Sweetening up Ms Travers, the way Walt wanted to, and did, sweeten up Ms Poppins doesnt make things better, nor does it make the film suitable for the younger kids whom Disney wanted to attract with his version of the umbrella-flying nanny, with disturbing images of Travers childhood vying with scenes of pure cotton candy.
The real story is that Disney spent 20 years trying to get the rights to the first book in Travers Poppins series. As the film tells us, it was a promise he made his daughter and in a Disney film, such things are sacrosanct. The real story is also that despite what the film shows, Travers went to her grave hating the resulting film, and forbidding any American from every having anything to do with any future adaptations.
Fortunately for Disney and his promise, Travers had fallen on financial hard times, and finally giving in to Disney and his corporation became the only way out. And so the formal, dour, barb-tongued, and altogether misanthropic author finds herself in friendly, sunny California, about to be assaulted by the happiest place on earth, and its determined glad-handing founder.
What ensues , and my second problem with the film, is a curious bifurcation of story and purpose. Flashbacks to Travers difficult childhood with her feckless by adored father (Colin Farrell) and cross-cut with the whimsical taming of the British shrew. Its a combination that never quite works, least of all when the adult Travers, played with impeccable integrity by Emma Thompson, is seen twirling with delight to one of the songs she so didnt want in the film, in contrast to the sight of the seven-year-old Travers watching her bed-ridden father coughing up blood. That pears will somehow figure into the glib psychology of the story is prefigured by the adult Travers pitching said fruit over the balcony of her suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel yelling Pears! Never pears! The attempts to psychoanalyze the author are never less klunky than that, and often can be seen to strain at their poorly constructed seams.
Travers, to harp on my first problem, was a much more complicated and interesting character than the one-dimensional dyspeptic on view. A dabbler in the occult, in free love, and life upon the wicked, wicked stage, she is rendered into a starchy stereotype with a quirk about building gazebos out of twigs and leaves.
The third problem is that it all goes on much too long trying to make one cohesive film about of two diametrically opposing stories. Not that Tom Hanks as Disney isnt properly avuncular with a suitably Disney twinkle in his eye. There is even the (for Disney) daring depiction of him smoking and drinking, though he is at pains to note he is embarrassed to have his public find out about it. Paul Giamatti as the obvious expository device of Travers limo driver is the a suitably Disney Jiminy Cricket of the piece, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwarzman as the Sherman Brothers who were Disneys go-to film composers are a suitably Disney pair of bumbling sidekicks. They deserve better, and for the real story of how they worked with Travers, there is the excellent documentary THE BOYS, in which they go on at length about how difficult Travers was to work with, and offer a glimpse of how much fun it would have been to see that Travers on screen and in the hands of the divine Miss T.
There are in SAVING MR. BANKS two films warring with each other and leaving the audience as its casualty. A thoughtful film about the childhood influences Travers injected into her Poppins, one less pretty and more stern than the cinematic one, would have been fascinating, particularly with Farrell, an actor of much charisma playing a lost soul. A trite but fun film about the immovable object that was Travers disdain, meeting the irresistible force that was Disneys ambition and aw-shucks charm might also have passed muster. As it stands, SAVING MR. BANKS is saved by the distinctly non-pandering talents of Thompson, and, over the credits, the actual tape recordings of the consulting sessions Travers had with Disney production staff, recordings upon which Travers insisted because even though he presided over the happiest place on earth, there was something about Disney that she didnt trust. As SAVING MR. BANKS proves. She was right.