Not nearly as enchanting as people are expecting, this is the story of a battle of wills between Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and P. L. Travers, the author of the book MARY POPPINS. Travers oversees the writing of the script, vetoing nearly everything suggested. The viewer should expect to see long stretches of Travers being unpleasant. Meanwhile Disney is trying his every strategy, honest or not, to try to get the film made. Meanwhile we get Travers fleshed out by seeing flashbacks of her unpleasant youth in Australia. John Lee Hancock directs a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. SAVING MR. BANKS works better if the viewer has a reverence for the film MARY POPPINS. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10.
Walt Disney and his studio frequently adapted popular children’s stories, bringing them to the screen. And when they did, they made the story all their own by changing whatever they wanted to change. Frequently the resulting film versions bore little resemblance to the original source. If the story was a fairy tale from folklore, there was nobody who could be said to own the story so nobody could tell Disney not to adapt it.
One exception was when Disney made MARY POPPINS. Disney’s own children lobbied him to adapt this one as one of their favorite books. There was however a problem. The book MARY POPPINS was had a genuine living author, P. L. Travers. Travers was a woman of strong will and the book was in many ways a commentary on her own life. Emotionally it was a very personal book to her and legally it was one on which she still owned the rights. She had no intention of ever letting Disney getting his revisionist hands on her book. Only one thing could make her change her mind, money. Travers needed money. In SAVING MR. BANKS, Disney (played by Tom Hanks) offers Travers (Emma Thompson) approval on the film and then tries to win her over with the magic of the Disney style, but it is absolutely the wrong approach to win over the hardnosed, curmudgeonly woman. So Disney must try new strategies to persuade Travers to allow the film to be made.
Those who were charmed by the film MARY POPPINS and who want to see a “making of” sort of drama may find this story not so enchanting. This is a battle of wits between two willful people, and it is in no way whimsical. Children may find the film boring or actually unpleasant. The story flashes back and forth between Travers having angry sessions with the writers of the script and scenes from Travers’ unpleasant youth in Australia with a father (Colin Farrell) whom she loves but who increasingly drinks and destroys his health.
Taking a hand in the creation of the film of MARY POPPINS is Disney himself. He finds strategies to put, for example, animated penguins into the film after Travers has said in no uncertain terms that there is to be no animation at all in the film. Travers objects to the casting of Dick Van Dyke, but the filmmakers bring in the comic actor anyway.
On the surface Disney is affable while Travers is prickly, rude, and cynical, but underneath they are very similar and both very inflexible. The viewer sees these confrontations with no option to be left out of the conflict. The film suffers from a dearth of likable characters so one is added. Travers is given a car and chauffeur. Ralph the driver (Paul Giamatti) brings a quiet and sensitive wisdom to his role. He is a stark contrast to the character I saw him play just hours before in 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Giamatti is quietly rising to be one of our most accomplished actors.
Most of John Schwartzman’s cinematography is decidedly more engaging in the Australia scenes than the Hollywood ones just because Australia is a more interesting locale. However, having action occur around bed sheets hanging to dry is becoming a cinematic cliche.
Last year’s HITCHCOCK was also about the making of a film, in that case PSYCHO. It covered a more interesting range of production problems and hence was over all of more interest. This film is mostly about getting Travers to give her permission for the adaptation to be made. And while it is left ambiguous, the real P. L. Travers was never at all happy with the film version of her book.
But I suppose at Disney Studios there is a sort of reverence for the film MARY POPPINS so making that film seems to them a laudable goal. One can easily come away from this film feeling more wearied at the than elated that MARY POPPINS was made. I rate SAVING MR. BANKS a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. I recommend sitting through the end credits to hear an actual tape of a script consultation with Travers.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper