Walt Disney Studios, 2014, directed by John Lee Hancock, with Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, 125 minutes, Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images.)
If you’ve never read P L Travers’ books, and only know her most famous character from the silver screen, you don’t really know Mary Poppins.
Not long after I had seen the Disney movie when I was around 12 years old, I came across one of the books in my local library. I started reading and was almost at once disappointed. Disney’s Mary Poppins was a nanny extraordinaire, but this woman in the book was nothing at all like what I had expected.
On the printed page, Mary Poppins was uptight, pedantic, inflexible and a disciplinarian, in short nothing less than a stereotypical Edwardian prig.
Like most of the children of 20th century America I was at a loss to understand how the character in the book could have anything in common with the charming woman who had won my heart in the movie theatre.
What happened in between those two productions, of course, was the intervention of Walter Elias Disney. And thereby hangs the tale of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Not your run of the mill Disney fare; this film not only has a somewhat darker, more introspective tone, it also brings us the unique experience of seeing Walt Disney himself – here portrayed by Tom Hanks – playing a role as a major character. Emma Thompson is P L Travers, the author who has kept Disney at bay for 20 years, unwilling to allow her precious property to fall into Walter’s crass commercial Hollywood hands.
The movie flashes back and forth between Travers’ childhood in the Australian outback and her present day experience encountering Walt Disney and his staff in Hollywood with undiluted horror and disapproval.
In Australia, we meet Travers’ father, played by Colin Farrell as a loving man possessed by the sort of demons we don’t usually find in a Disney movie. Her mother, seemingly helpless in the face of such challenges, teeters on the brink of psychological collapse.
When the worst comes to pass, an aunt on her mother’s side of the family arrives to take the family in tow, complete with bird handled umbrella and carpet bag.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Walt connives and cajoles to bring his reluctant author to heel. Nothing seems to work: Travers is absolutely shrill in her disapproval of a pretty, singing, dancing and fanciful Mary Poppins and the songwriting Sherman brothers can’t seem to compose anything that even comes near to winning her tolerance, let alone consent.
It goes without saying that a compromise is reached, but I’ll leave it to you to see the movie itself and learn how.
Disney is not known for works of deep melodrama and those thinking that this is a family picture will be distressed by some of the movie’s action and dialogue. I would suggest that children younger than 14 should stick with the Disney musical. This one’s more for the parents.
Mind you, it IS a good film; Hanks does his best to submerge himself in the role of Walt Disney and although he doesn’t altogether look like him, he comes close enough that the screenplay works.
Thompson is drawn, fraught and spinsterish with an attitude so uptight she practically squeaks audibly whenever she moves, yet she manages to become a sympathetic character.
Paul Giamatti is an unexpected delight as her dedicated limo driver while she’s in L-A and, as noted above, Colin Farrell takes a role for which he is more than well-suited and makes the most of it.
And there’s more than a little irony when you consider that the same woman who gave the world “Nanny McFee” is also the one who gave us this neurotically obsessive authoress.
(4 out of 5 stars)