“A leisurely stroll is a gift”
If you thought Mary Poppins couldn’t get more uplifting in its journey towards giving two young children the love they always desired from their downtrodden dad, Saving Mr. Banks will prove you wrong. Utilizing a script by Kelly Marcel (a second credit was later added to Sue Smith) that only lasted one year on the screenplay Black List before being scooped up by the studio prominently featured within it, we’re shown a rather humorous behind-the-scenes look at the culmination of a twenty-year business courtship between Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) alongside the tragic circumstances of the childhood that inspired her literary classic. Sweetly timed laughs juxtapose against heart-wrenching tears as we travel to and from 1964 Hollywood and turn of the century Australia to understand exactly how special Ms. Poppins was.
We meet Travers at the end of her finances with no inclinations toward writing a new novel or selling the character dearer to her than anyone she’s ever known. Memories of her father (Colin Farrell)—a bank manager—explaining how money wasn’t everything crop up to make her question the verbal agreement she’s made to travel from London to California for an “exploratory” series of meetings with the creative team tasked to adapt her work onto the big screen. Recollections of her family’s forced uprooting from a suburban home to the Australian outback as a child also flood back with the fear of reliving that loss once she’s no longer able to afford her current flat. So, cantankerous, opinionated, and less than enthusiastic, she finally arrives to find Hollywood as loathsome as expected.
Director John Lee Hancock builds on his success from The Blind Side with another central performance deserving of at least an Oscar nomination this year. Thompson has called the role one of the most difficult she’s ever played and while the trailers may have you scratching your head as to why, it doesn’t take more than the opening scene to see how complex Mrs. Travers truly is. Yes, her game of hardball with Disney over the book rights is a way to lord her power over what he calls a promise to his little girls, but there’s also a genuine fear behind the quick dismissals and impossible stipulations she places upon screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman’s (Jason Schwartzman) every move to make Mary Poppins the movie a hit.
It’s noticeable in her quiet moments at home with the wheels turning while she weighs the pros and cons of putting what was more or less an autobiographical account of her youth in front of the world. There is a loneliness in her soul as well as a wealth of regret and guilt as to how she may have portrayed people from her past and how a studio like Disney may warp them even further for mass consumption. And as every new scene is written in the rehearsal room with Whitford, Novak, and Schwartzman doing their best to keep a smile on their faces as she rips to shred each idea they pose, the memories of her tragic upbringing overtake her emotions and soul through flashbacks that ultimately prove the best part of what’s a very good film.
These interludes with her youthful stand-in, alcoholic father, and depressive mother (Ruth Wilson) give us the background necessary to realize her actions in 1964 weren’t unjustified. Who could blame her for not wanting a man that appeared to be exactly the sort her father warned her about—an empire-builder full of ego and hubris—to turn a story she wrote in honor of him into something solely for profit? Marcel’s script carefully exposes each secret from Australia in conjunction with a relevant moment during the adaptation process to ensure we acknowledge her increasing discord is due to the worsening memories of a young girl made to grow up faster than any child should. Farrell, Wilson and to a lesser extent Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) will break your heart as writing Mary Poppins is revealed to have been a catharsis.
As heavy as these parallels may be tonally and as dramatic as Thompson’s portrayal, however, one mustn’t forget the lightness infused by the period recreation of Disneyland surrounding her on this poignant “This is Your Life” journey. Whether the vintage stuffed animals adorning her hotel room, the copious amounts of food brought into their meetings that cause a culture clash between Disney’s excess and her very humble adolescence, or the transformed Magic Kingdom visited ever so briefly towards the end, it’s no surprise the studio wanted to make the film itself in order to show its splendor from yesteryear. Because no matter how buoyantly jovial everyone acts in contrast to Travers’ curmudgeon, this look behind the curtain isn’t always pristine when the legalities and compromises of business rear their heads.
That being said, Hanks does do a wonderful job playing the effusive Disney always with a kindhearted smile and genuine appreciation for those in his employee and others simply wanting to wave and say hello. The detail was measured down to the proportions of his moustache and continued with a quick glimpse at his smoking habit and his seriousness when talking about childhood. The dynamic between he and Thompson is funny, authentic, and challenging—a nice companion for her more heartfelt thaw opposite the one American who never seemed to put on airs when in her company, Ralph (Paul Giamatti) the limo driver. Even in such a moment of acceptance and kinship, however, Thompson retains an unwavering level of composure and properness. It’s therefore a testament to her performance that we can still discern angry from indifferent from pleased.
The film is called Saving Mr. Banks for a reason and it’s not simply because that was Mary Poppins literary purpose. While the details of how Disney and Travers came together to make an indelible and timeless piece of art captivate and the aesthetic Hancock’s brilliant crew manufactured draws you in, the heart of this movie lies within little “Ginty” (Annie Rose Buckley) and what she endured at the hands of emotionally broken parents. Marcel’s story is one of redemption at its purest form—a release of oneself from the pressures of doing right by those she loved despite their inability to do right by her. Seeing Travers’ tears at the film’s premiere isn’t moving because she enjoyed the product (she in fact did not), but because she allowed Mr. Banks to receive the happy ending she’d always wanted.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures