“Saving Mr. Banks” is a shameless wad of corporate PR, a feel-good, self-serving Disney film about the making of a Disney film.
The property in question is “Mary Poppins,” and the new film dramatizes the culmination of a 23-year crusade by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to win the film rights from the author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). It was a power struggle between two people accustomed to getting their own way. The film slaps a prefab happy ending on the bruising collision of ego, art and commerce.
The story gives us Travers as a grown-up and child. In the 1961 scenes, she’s a prickly, prissy old girl, exasperated by Disney’s relentless campaign to acquire her beloved children’s book character but in financial straits because of declining sales.
Travers agrees to visit California, the land of shallow sunshine and money-stuffed briefcases, for two weeks of creative consultations on the proposed script. She half hopes the negotiations will collapse, less than half believes that her invincible integrity will mold the project into a film she can live with.
A second story line takes us repeatedly to 1906 Australia. Here Travers (under her birth name, Helen Goff) gambols through a childhood of genteel poverty. Her whimsical father (Colin Farrell), a playful, tippling bank officer, is a link to their ancestral Ireland, the land of myths, stories and alcoholism. Mother (Ruth Wilson) observes her spouse with a mightily furrowed brow.
The script by Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel offers ever-so-tidy connections between the modern-day fussbudget and the traumas of little Helen’s youth. Mrs. Travers’ demand that the “Mary Poppins” film not contain the color red surely links to the ketchup-scarlet stains on poor, tubercular Papa’s handkerchief.
In the Mary Poppins books, a cool, collected woman arrives seemingly out of nowhere and proceeds to impose on a chaotic household her ideas of order. That’s what Thompson attempts to achieve here, laboring to bend Hanks’ creative funhouse to her will. Her performance is deliciously prickly and prissy. She knits her forehead into a perfect migraine of exasperation at her cheery, chattering studio limo driver (Paul Giamatti).
With screenwriter Don DiGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) she wrangles over animation (she loathed it), the casting of Dick Van Dyke (“not one of the greats”) and lyrics that bend the rules of English grammar (they hide the title sheet of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”).
Hanks’ Disney is a calm, deliberate “Father Knows Best” type whose only vices are an afternoon whiskey and hints of off-screen smoking. With gauche chumminess he calls the starchy Mrs. Travers “Pam,” and he hands out business cards pre-signed with his autograph when they tour Disneyland together. You can see why he and the glacially reserved Travers would disagree.
The film rewrites history, creating a London get-together in which Disney woos the old maid with a smarmy, Dr. Phil-worthy amateur therapy session. He directly addresses her childhood grief and tells a cornball tale of his own youthful woe in Missouri, where he delivered papers in blizzard conditions. The real Travers would have shut him down with a brisk “we all have our troubles.” The film omits Disney’s double-cross of Travers, granting her script supervision but no say in the final cut, a loophole that enabled him to jam in a troupe of animated tea-serving penguins.
Disney’s grasp of what moviegoers would enjoy was shrewd, of course. “Mary Poppins” became one of the studio’s biggest hits and won five Oscars, including best actress for Julie Andrews. It made Travers rich, but not happy. Years later she wrote, “It was as if they took a sausage, threw away the contents but kept the skin, and filled the skin with their own ideas very far from the original substance.”
That’s what “Saving Mr. Banks” does with the “Mary Poppins” back story. Travers reportedly cried tears of betrayal following the premiere, and in her will explicitly forbade Disney from having any more access to her characters. But here she’s delighted. This account isn’t the heartwarming Disney version, it’s the saccharine Mickey Mouse version.