CAST: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Melanie Paxon, Rachel Griffiths
RUNNING TIME: 125 mins
BASICALLY…: Author P.L. Travers (Thompson) is invited to Los Angeles by Walt Disney (Hanks) to oversee his adaptation of her Mary Poppins books, but her strict refusal to accept Disney’s light-hearted additions leads to emotional conflicts regarding her childhood in Australia…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Disney’s portrayal of the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins is not as one-sided as you may think.
While the company’s presence can be felt all over this biographical film of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, it does at least have the courtesy of presenting both sides of the argument fairly and provocatively. On one hand, any writer in Travers’ position would be devastated if their character was sodomised with everything they are not by a major studio adapting their work. This reviewer has not read Travers’ original stories but from what one hears about them they are significantly darker and more grounded than what would eventually become Disney’s cheery, highly-successful musical (could be wrong about the books’ description, but that’s what has been heard). But, on the other hand, not everything can be translated in filmic adaptation and certain aspects have to be heavily altered or removed altogether to create a better product. The key word with any adaptation is “change”, and that it had to be done with Travers’ Mary Poppins stories in order to create a successful film was inevitable.
However, Saving Mr. Banks is remarkable for not only showing the flaws in Travers’ perceptive of the character and story, but even more so for showing Disney’s. One of the stapling conditions Travers makes to Walt Disney is that no animation is included; anyone who has seen the resulting movie will know that she got screwed over on that front by the company tycoon who craftily went back on his original word. But Travers herself is not a saint either, as the film goes to great lengths to exploit for often comedic effect. Demanding to oversee the scripting process – including recording the meetings on a microphone, which you can actually hear during the end credits as a cute little add-on – with writer Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriter siblings Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), her constant rebuffing of everything from set and character designs to the Shermans’ song lyrics (“’Responstible’ is not a word,” she argues) make her a grating presence for both the characters and the audience. It is understandable that anyone would want to be fiercely protective of their work, but the way she is being portrayed makes it seem like she is protective to the extreme which has a backfiring effect on the casual viewer. However, the conclusive point being made is that the film does indeed show both the strengths and flaws in each side of the Travers vs. Disney argument, and for a film which so easily could have favoured Disney all the way, seeing how it was made by them and all, it stands out as a fair analysis in what went right and wrong with the making of Mary Poppins.
Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith are “responstible” for this analysis, and while their writing never goes deep enough for us to properly understand the morals and real-life characters – though again, this being a Disney product are you really that shocked? – it is still bouncy and fun enough to keep us invested. It also takes on a gentle and comforting feel in particular scenes, including one where Richard Sherman (Schwartzman) plays the song “Feed The Birds” on the piano as Disney watches over. It’s a scene that doesn’t add much to the story, but it serves as a nice little breather that allows for some desperately needed atmosphere in the workplace, and on that note it works well.
However, it does falter whenever it transitions to the B-story of the picture, and that’s where director John Lee Hancock has trouble as well. Said B-story is of Travers’ childhood in Australia with her family including alcoholic father Colin Farrell and mentally-unhinged mother Ruth Wilson (appearing in her second live-action Disney film of the year, this obviously being the better one), and it does fine on its own regard, but you find yourself more invested in the main story rather than this one and not as emotionally attached. It does not help when the transitions themselves are awkwardly positioned – for example, a later scene where characters are dancing, singing aloud and laughing together is suddenly interrupted with no segue to a much sombre scene where the mood is decisively sadder. Talk about a buzzkill if there ever was one.
Marcel and Smith’s fresh script lends way to some fascinating characters to portray, and Hancock’s steady if unremarkable direction allows some wonderful actors to embody them. Emma Thompson is front and centre as Travers, while Tom Hanks is actually in a smaller role as Walt Disney. Both are excellent in their own ways, with Thompson handling the more difficult role with wonderful commitment and bravery to inject a very small fraction of charm into an otherwise detestable and prudish presence. Hanks radiates the screen whenever he shows up, personifying the family-friendly image of his company with a sweet and likable performance but humanising who is essentially a God-like figure with persistent coughing (foreshadowing his death a few years later from lung cancer) and stern businessman tendencies as briefly reflected in his hard-hitting command of another character later in the film. Also providing heart and soul for the film is Paul Giamatti as a chauffeur who befriends the prickly Travers, who shares a fun and subtle chemistry with his client; Schwartzman, Novak and Whitford portray the Sherman Brothers and DeGradi respectively with a good mixture of upbeat enthusiasm; and Farrell proves effective as Travers’ father whose taste for booze gets the better of his better judgement. It might have been fun to see how other actors may have portrayed the films’ stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but then that was never the film’s overall focus in the first place.
The focus was, and remains, the story of a clash between pessimism (that’d be Travers) and optimism (take a wild guess who that is) and Saving Mr. Banks gives a clear and present argument for either side without necessarily favouring one over the other. And that, more than anything, makes the overall film very “responstible” indeed.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Saving Mr. Banks is a fine account of the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins, boosted by exemplary performances by Thompson and Hanks and Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s strong script. Not practically perfect in every way, which the lesser Australia-set B-story can prove, but it remains harmless enough to stand as a crowd-pleaser and interesting footnote for any lovers of Disney’s musical classic.