Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
Directed by John Lee Hancock
“They said only God could make a tree,” Walt Disney says proudly as he strolls down Main Street, U.S.A. in the Disneyland theme park, late in Saving Mr. Banks. Walt, as he prefers to be known, gladhands all the park guests who recognize him from his years of hosting the Disneyland TV series as well as from being the man in charge of many of the heroes and villains of 20th-century America’s collective childhood. He’s in the park this day, showing off his facsimile creation of the ultimate small town to the rigid and distant British author P.L. Travers. So, yes, it was once said that only God was capable of creating life, but at Disneyland, even the next-best thing appears to be satisfactory enough to qualify as a deity. This line of dialogue, calmly and triumphantly delivered by Tom Hanks, is perhaps more telling than intended. It’s one of the few times when Travers doesn’t counter him, especially eyebrow-raising since this iconic mogul unsubtly is comparing himself to the Supreme Being. The line is a hint that Saving Mr. Banks is less about peering into the life of a woman without whom Mary Poppins would not exist, and more about how gratifying it is that Disney came along to take the primary document and turn it into a more crowd-pleasing derivative copy.
The film Mary Poppins is probably the closest we have to a pure distillation of the ideals of Walt Disney, captured on film. (The purest distillation of those ideals, in general, would have to be the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, the only one of six such parks created and unveiled to the public while the man was alive.) Arguably, Mary Poppins doesn’t comment even obliquely on Disney’s enthusiasm for all things astronomical, as displayed in those early attractions and exhibits in Tomorrowland. But before the Disney Renaissance began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, there was no more quintessential “Disney movie” than Mary Poppins, which is wall-to-wall with Broadway-style singing and dancing, live-action family filmmaking, raucous animation, colorful characters, and more. It is, for better or worse, the apex of the family film. Mary Poppins is an exuberantly mounted epic of Disney craftmanship, an imperfect product made more charming because of its flaws (first, always, being Dick Van Dyke’s outlandish attempt at a British accent). Saving Mr. Banks, on the other hand, is a hollow if competently made piece of plastic.
No doubt, part of the charm of Mary Poppins is its tactile falsity. We can almost reach out and pat the façade upon which the Banks house was built, imagine what the air would smell like in turn-of-the-century London, and get an idea of what it would be like to walk on the cobblestone into the misty, unknowable darkness as George Banks does at one point. Saving Mr. Banks, conversely, mildly tries to blend a “true” story of bleak, dusty childhood along with the creation of the Disney adaptation of Travers’ work, coming up flat on both ends. Of the two stories being told in this new film, one has a potentially fascinating streak, muted by the depiction of how a creative-minded form of early American exceptionalism dominated, championed, and smoothened out a purely British tale of a splintered family unit.
The story goes that Walt Disney promised his daughters in the early 1940s that he would make a Mary Poppins movie after they were so enchanted by the books written by P.L. Travers (here portrayed by an exaggeratedly prickly Emma Thompson). Travers was notoriously finicky, and for two decades, she refused to sell the movie rights to Disney, fearing that he would inject things like animation and singing into a world she’d created, one that tacitly scoffed at both as folly. But in 1961, Travers’ career had stalled, to the point where she either refused to write a new story or simply was unable to. As she desperately needed the money, she allowed herself to be wooed, in effect, flying to Burbank, California to consult on a project that would eventually become the 1964 film that garnered Julie Andrews a Best Actress Oscar for playing the practically-perfect-in-every-way nanny. And so begins the charm offensive that makes up roughly half of Saving Mr. Banks; the other half is told in flashback, as Travers apparently reminisces about her childhood, specifically growing up in the Australian outback in 1906 with her reserved and frail mother (Ruth Wilson) and her enthusiastic, lively, but cripplingly alcoholic father (a sad, but charming Colin Farrell). And wouldn’t you know, her father has an all-consuming job as a bank manager, where he’s bullied by its doddering owner.
These stories are two pieces to a puzzle with far more pieces than Saving Mr. Banks is willing to acknowledge or even explore. The life of P.L. Travers, both from what is documented in real life and from what we see in this film, is vastly more fascinating than what is depicted here. To be clear, that the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith—once on the famed screenwriting Black List, before it was purchased by Disney, so who knows if other uncredited rewrites were grafted onto the original working draft—is a highly fictional account of the making of Mary Poppins is not a problem, in and of itself. Even if this movie was a harsher take on either Travers or Disney, it is a film in which the man who would be Forrest Gump and a sentient toy sheriff plays Uncle Walt. This movie can take dramatic liberties; the issue, then, is not that it does so, but how it does so. In this film, P.L. Travers didn’t just come up with Mary Poppins on a whim, but mined her past to fuel her imagination when writing the character and her exploits with the Banks family.
But in doing so, at least in the way she’s presented here, Travers becomes, essentially, the villain of the piece. In many scenes, Thompson appears to play Travers as one of the fierce-looking applicants for the nanny position at the Banks household who blow away in a magical gust of wind before Mary Poppins floats down to Earth from the clouds. Within a few minutes of her introduction, Travers has expressed her distaste with the quiet, cooing baby of a fellow passenger on her flight from London to Los Angeles, and soon, she will make clear to anyone within earshot—her friendly driver (Paul Giamatti), the screenwriter of the adaptation (Bradley Whitford), the composers of the film’s many songs (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), and more—the lack of regard with which she holds Disney or his animated characters or his theme parks. Because she is played by Emma Thompson, Travers is not an entirely exhausting protagonist, but she is a shockingly off-putting one. Everyone else in Saving Mr. Banks suffers her as best as they can—only co-composer Robert Sherman loses his patience in front of her, after she nitpicks to death another detail of the proposed film—in the hopes that she will eventually be won over by the sea of stuffed animals in her hotel room, or by touring Disneyland with the man himself, or by songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with the structure of Saving Mr. Banks is in the bifurcation between the past and present. We follow the little girl who would become P.L. Travers (played solidly by Annie Rose Buckley), desperately trying to figure out why her fun-loving father is so depressed that he drowns himself in booze each day and night. And we follow the woman who is P.L. Travers, acid-tongued and humorless and fervently fighting against whatever charms Walt Disney or America may have in store. What we are missing is the middle stretch, or even a hint in the flashbacks that the little girl’s tragic childhood would turn her heart to stone—except when creating the fictional world of Mary Poppins, George Banks, and his goodhearted children. What happens to little Helen “Ginty” Goff is indeed heartbreaking, but there is no whiff of the hardhearted exterior that would form around her as she grew into the author of a beloved book series.
The novelty of watching America’s most universally liked movie star, now well into his middle years, portraying an American icon, never before seen on the big screen in fictional form, is not enough to hide this story’s messy, unfocused view of both P.L. Travers and Walt Disney. The former is our leading character, in almost every scene (either as a child or adult), but it’s hard not to see the latter as the eponymous savior. Mary Poppins may be a better film because Walt Disney wanted Dick Van Dyke to dance with animated penguins, but the way Saving Mr. Banks posits the author of the book series in question as being in need of someone to help absolve her daddy issues is surprisingly uncomfortable. It is possible to both love Mary Poppins and see how its creator would be so virulently opposed to the changes in tone Disney wanted to make. (Arguably, the same could be said for any great films or characters from the Walt Disney Company: you can embrace their version while holding the original even closer to your heart.) This film, though, would rather celebrate what Disney did and his, at times, underhanded methods of ignoring Travers.
The best thing about Saving Mr. Banks is that it will likely inspire a similar feeling in most audience members: an urge to rewatch Mary Poppins. Though that film is a bastardization of Travers’ stories—whether or not they’re an improvement on the source is a separate discussion—it is infinitely more intriguing and fascinating than the story both of how P.L. Travers agreed to let Disney make the movie and of why she felt so attached to the Banks family. Director John Lee Hancock puts a pleasant sheen on the affairs, and the ensemble is more than enthusiastic in their portrayals (Giamatti, Schwartzman, and Novak, particularly), but the entire thing feels hollow. Consider the scene in which Travers arrives in her Beverly Hills hotel room, horrified to see that it’s stuffed to the rafters with Disney merchandise, like a massive Mickey Mouse making time on her bed. One such trinket is a stuffed animal of Winnie the Pooh; as she picks it up to deposit it in the closet so she can ignore it, she comments, “Poor A.A. Milne.” This line serves a basic purpose—a fellow British author whose work was purloined and ruined by this garish American and his largesse—but the moment is a microcosm of the film’s problems. Though Disney did purchase the rights to Winnie the Pooh the same year as when Travers took her 2-week trip to Burbank, the first Pooh short wasn’t released until 1966. No stuffed animals would’ve existed, or been so popular, when she was in the States. Saving Mr. Banks was made with the best of intentions, but even in the small moments, the filmmakers get the details wrong. All the mistakes do is make us long for the real thing, not a half-hearted depiction of how that real thing got made.
— Josh Spiegel