Review – A Second Look at “Saving Mr. Banks”

* Editor’s Note – You’re probably wondering why we’re posting another review of “Saving Mr. Banks”. Simple – we have more than one reviewer, and this is a democracy, damn it! Besides, Oscar season will soon be upon us, and this film’s a favorite to be nominated. We’ve shared Chris’s thoughts. Now here are Peter’s…

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I’ll just make one thing clear right off the bat. I’ve always been a huge fan of “Mary Poppins” the film. Some of my earliest memories are of watching “Mary Poppins” as a young child, as well as countless other Disney films in their long and cherished repertoire. I haven’t let growing into an adult diminish my appreciation for Disneyland trips either. Call me a softee, if you will, but that’s a part of my childhood that I will never grow out of. So the idea of a film about the making of one of Disney’s most well-beloved films certainly seems like a can’t-miss prospect for me. As I watched “Saving Mr. Banks”, I was essentially of two mindsets. One mindset was of a Disney fan who relished in the chance to explore the background and history of this film that I am a long-time appreciator of. But then there was the other mindset that I simply couldn’t shake: the idea that this was a shameless P.R. stunt in an effort for the current Walt Disney Pictures to hide from the widely known truth that author P.L. Travers was not happy with the way that Mr. Disney treated her intellectual property, and that Disney used some pretty shrewd tactics to get what he wanted.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, “Saving Mr. Banks” tells the story of P.L. Travers, beautifully played by the always reliable Emma Thompson, and her reluctance to grant Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) the rights to produce a film version of her long-cherished novel, Mary Poppins. We get a scene at the beginning where her agent is desperately trying to get her to meet with Disney, as she “Refuses to write more books, the sales are down, and royalties are diminishing.” It’s one of those scenes where if this were a Muppet movie, there would most likely be a character turning towards the camera and saying something to the effect of, “This is what we call ‘exposition.’” She travels to L.A. and coldly greets nearly every person she meets while snidely making one degrading comment about the city after another. She meets with Disney and goes from cold to straight up icy. But he is good enough to allow her access to all of the production meetings between songwriters The Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwarztman and B.J. Novak) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). She is constantly making outrageous demands at every moment. She disapproves of the casting of Dick Van Dyke. She doesn’t want any songs in the film. She doesn’t want the color red to appear in the film. And she most certainly wants no animation. What’s troublesome is that we never see most of these issues resolved. Obviously Dick Van Dyke ended up in the film. Obviously songs were put in. Obviously the color red was allowed, but the only time that we actually see Travers confront Disney is when she discovers that there will in fact be animation. Everything else is sort of glossed over.

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The story of the making of the film is interspersed with flashback scenes to Ms. Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia. These started out as annoying as it felt more like watching two different movies flipping back and forth, but as the film went on and Travers’ past provided more of an insight into her as a person, and their connection with the Poppins story, I warmed up to them quite a bit. Colin Farrell gives probably the best performance in the film as Travers’ father, an alcoholic banker who truly loves his family despite his problems. His face is beautifully expressive with every emotion he’s asked to convey. Another standout is Paul Giamatti as P.L. Travers’ driver in L.A. Giamatti proves once again, as he did in “12 Years A Slave”, that even with a smaller role he can be as effective and memorable as anyone else in the cast. As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks was wise not to go for a straight-up impersonation, as that can often be deadly for an actor when playing someone as well-known and iconic as he. Beyond mimicking Disney’s casual western accent, he doesn’t try to resemble him much more closely than that, beyond exuding a warmth and jolliness. Tom Hanks has long been looked at as America’s iconic most well-beloved actor, so I suppose he was a perfect choice for Mr. Disney. B.J. Novak as Robert Sherman is less effective than most in the film. To me he’s still Ryan on “The Office”, a guy who always conveys annoyance behind the smug smile of his. He’s never really there. And that hardly fits for one of the most prolific songwriters in Disney history.

So, as a film, “Saving Mr. Banks” works, and it works well. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by giving away that P.L. Travers does in fact grant Disney the rights, and yes the film was made. Pretty sure the cat’s out of the bag on that one. And watching the recreation of the film’s world premiere was very effective in warming me up with nostalgic memories of how happy Mary Poppins has always made me and many others. But the purist in me felt differently. Walt Disney was a terribly shrewd businessman. He had to be. You don’t get to his stature by being soft in any way shape or form. And while this film depicts him as a frustrated artist being tormented by this overly demanding author, the truth is he used some terribly unfair tactics to get what he wanted. Hanks gives a rather passionate speech to appeal to Travers towards the end about how they are both storytellers. We’re supposed to see this as the two of them finally seeing eye to eye, but all I could see was him being terribly manipulative towards this woman. It tells us that Travers came around to appreciating Disney’s vision, her primary reason for granting the rights was simply because she needed the money.

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Travers hated the final film of Mary Poppins. Disney was wise enough to grant her script approval rights, but not final cut approval rights which allowed him to go back on his promise to not include any animation. The film shows her attending the premiere and bursting into tears during the screening. We’re made to believe that she does this because she is moved by what she sees, when in fact she was actually unhappy with the way Disney treated her story. While it was interesting to see Travers’ backstory and be shown where the character of Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks came from, and I relished seeing the creative process between the filmmakers, the depiction of the relationship between Travers and Disney is terribly skewed in Disney’s favor. P.L. Travers would have hated this movie.

The promotional material has made much out of the fact that they shot part of the film on location at Disneyland. Much of this sequence takes place in Fantasyland, an area in which anyone with even a casual interest in Disneyland history is well aware looked completely different in 1961. You can even spot Pinocchio’s Daring Journey in the background, a ride that didn’t exist until 17 years after Walt Disney died. I can’t help but view this casual disregard of the actual history of the park as symbolizing the casual disregard of the actual truth of Walt Disney’s shrewd business tactics.

But I don’t want to come down too hard on this movie. Yes, it manipulates history for P.R. purposes. Yes, it’s unfair to Travers’ story. And yes, it’s clearly a way to capitalize on the 50th Anniversary of one of their most beloved films. But it’s also an enjoyable, and at times wonderfully emotional celebration of a real staple of my childhood. Like I said, I was of two minds while watching this film. The sap who enjoyed the tearjerking emotion, and the realist who recognized the manipulated history. In the end, the sap won out. If you’re looking for a fun family movie that gives you an insight into where Travers’ Mary Poppins came from, you’ll have no problem enjoying this film. If you’re looking for an accurate representation of the relationship between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney, you’re better off reading the “Mary Poppins” Wikipedia page.

Grade – B-

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