When Disney themselves produce a picture based on the making of one of their most iconic pictures (Mary Poppins), no one can be blamed for groaning at the prospect. A Walt Disney movie about Walt Disney making a movie? Come on! Everyone must have been betting on the final outcome being a self-indulgent schmaltz-fest, showing that old Walt wasn’t really such a bad guy. While there is elements of the latter (when you cast Tom Hanks as Disney, it was never going to be a provocative projection), Saving Mr. Banks is not the disposable hallmark movie that I had initially written it off as. What the Mouse House has produced is a beautifully crafted, classically Hollywood tale, brimming with tender emotion and walking the fine line between schmaltz and genuinely tender moments.
The plot follows as thus; With little money coming in from book sales anymore, the agent of British Children’s author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) urges her to accept a certain Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) offer of coming to California to discuss the film adaptation of her character Mary Poppins. With Disney having been hounding Travers for 20 years for the screen rights to her character, Travers is not keen on letting Mary Poppins go lightly. The insufferable Travers proves troublesome for the creative team, arguing over every detail from animated penguins, to songs, to ‘constable-responstable’. Travers truly becomes enraged when she begins to realise that Disney and his creative team have missed the point of the story of Mary Poppins entirely; she is not there to save the children, she’s there to save the father. All the while, the experience evokes memories of Travers’ childhood, growing up on a rural farm in Australia and the experience she had with her alcoholic, yet loving father (Colin Farrell). As these memories boil to the surface, Travers must learn to forgive not her father, but herself, while Walt attempts to find the true meaning of Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins is a film that has been passed on from generation to generation, becoming one of the most beloved films of all time. That being the case, it was never one that particularly captured my young imagination. As charming, technologically innovative, and musically powered the film is, there is no escaping the fact that it is a headless chicken of a movie, running back and forth between unconnected set-pieces in the rush to set up the next song. It is a film though that continues to live on, and be held fondly by many, mainly down to instilling a thoroughly decent moral code, as well as presenting the fantasy of having a practically perfect figure coming down to clean all your troubles away. Behind this love for a film however is a tale of ego’s, disagreements, and difficult familial relationships. And it is this tale that provides the focus of Saving Mr. Banks.
Kelly Marcel’s taut and hugely efficient script, while clearly being a fond love letter to Mary Poppins, cleverly entwines two narratives; the rights issues between the older P.L. Traver’s and Walt Disney in the early 60’s, and the tale of Traver’s relationship with her alcoholic father in 1907 Queensland. While it doesn’t do anything different in terms of dual narrative flashbacks, Marcel’s script quite simply knows exactly what it is doing, where it wants to place the flashbacks to make full use of their emotional potential. One scene involving a rehearsal of the ‘Tuppence’ song masterfully allows a past memory to fill in the gaps of the lyrics, expertly cutting back and forth to build to an emotional climax, and standing as one of the best edited sequences I have seen so far this year (fine work by editor Mark Livolsi). Marcel’s script is also one entirely devoted to performance, and with a cast like the one assembled here, her words sing off the page.
The film is powered by the performance of Emma Thompson as P.L. Traver’s. A tightly-wound old-fashioned type could have proven annoying in another actresses’ hands (and writers) but Thompson ensures there’s a knowing wink and playfulness in her delivery. She also ensures that Travers does not come across as an old prude; she enthuses her character with a delicate insecurity and a protective nature. This is a woman who has been greatly affected by her past relationship with her father, racked with misplaced guilt, and one who is afraid to let go of her own creation in the form of Mary Poppins. It is a beautiful and affecting performance and one that we should be seeing in a far few nomination lists come the Awards Season at the end of the year.
Hanks as Walt Disney is as one would expect; charming, inoffensive, and painted as the most lovable man in the world. Disney is not the focus of this movie, as significant as he is to the tale of getting Mary Poppins to the screen, much more of the heavy lifting is done else where in the cast. That is not to say Hanks is throw-away in the role, he is perfectly watchable, entertaining, you merely have the feeling that this is not hard work for him. The more impressive of the male lead performances comes in the form of Colin Farrell as Traver’s father. Sporting a spot on English accent, he plays the troubled soul with utterly devastating emotion, playing well against Ruth Wilson as his wife and the young child performers. The rest of the supporting cast all play their roles with gusto and energy, notable faces being Paul Giamatti as Traver’s warm-hearted driver, and B.J. Novak & Jason Schwartzman as the legendary Shearman Brothers.
Director John Lee Hancock paints the proceedings with a bright and colourful palette (the film is visually splendid if slightly sterile). The direction is not showy by any means, there is no need for an ‘edge’ as such, Hancock simply lets the material come to life through the power of the written word and his performers. Each shot is beautifully staged in a very classical style, with a sense of whimsy and magic running through the course of its never pressing two hour run-time. It may be a tad too safe to make a significant splash come the Oscars in February, but I can almost guarantee that it will be present. It is pure Oscar-bait, in the best possible sense of that phrase. A charming and utterly lovable tale powered by pure talent both in front and behind the camera. Traditional Hollywood film-making at its very best.