A bit more medicine and a little less sugar would have improved Saving Mr. Banks, a backstage drama of one of Disney’s most famous children’s films, Mary Poppins. The movie tells the history of the novel’s starchy and difficult author, Pamela Lyndon Travers (played by Emma Thompson) and the two awkward weeks she spent in California where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) brought her to work on the movie’s screenplay.
The script, by Kelly Marcel (who also wrote Fifty Shades of Grey) and Sue Smith, predated Disney’s involvement. But it was a an opportunity to present a fond portrait of its artist-entrepreneur founder through a studio-favoured director (John Lee Hancock, The Blind Side).
The downside is that Saving Mr. Banks essentially Disney-fies the life of a woman who had an aversion to the Disney treatment.
The movie takes place in two time periods: in 1961, where the tweedy Travers, ideologically allergic to kitsch or sentiment, proves to be a comically disruptive wrench in the mellow Disney machine. In this fictionalized version, Travers has yet to be persuaded into signing away her book, forcing the Disney folk to put up with her high-handedness.
The other part of the film is shot in dreamy sun-scorched flashbacks to rural Australia of the early 20th century. Here, the young Travers, born Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley) is one of three daughters of a romantic, alcoholic ne’er-do-well bank teller (a fine Colin Farrell).
As the film shifts back and forth between the two time periods, we gradually see, along with Travers, that the events in the fanciful Mary Poppins story are all rooted in her troubled family history. Though Thompson plays an apparently toned-down version of the real Travers (a bohemian bisexual actress, who adopted a child at 40, summered with the Hopi Indians and studied Zen in Japan), the main pleasure here is her signature mix of precision comic timing and gradually revealed vulnerability. Wearing curls that look as though they were screwed on, and her lips pursed as if sucking a sour lozenge, she loathes stuffed toys and animated musicals and American bonhomie.
Working in the small rehearsal space where the Disney magic is created, she treats the movie’s creators, including screenwriter, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and house composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) like dim underlings.
Troubling reports are sent to the boss, leaving Walt (Hanks), an ever-affable combination of folksy psychologist and shrewd businessman, struggling to figure out how to crack this particularly tough nut. He knows what the public wants and is determined to bring the best out in Travers. He tells her that he promised his daughters he would make Mary Poppins into a movie, and tells Travers meaningfully that “keeping promises is what being a daddy is all about.”
Later, he closes the deal by opening up about his own less-than-ideal childhood, before pronouncing to Travers on the value of storytellers: “We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again.”
Certainly, this imagineered version of P.L. Travers’s life provides an orderly drama, but it’s uncomfortably reductive. It may be a small world, after all, but it comes in a lot more shades than Saving Mr. Banks suggests.