Emma Thompson stars as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, a bittersweet comedy-drama about the fictional nanny’s journey from page to screen under the guidance of Walt Disney…
Saving Mr. Banks is based on the true story of how Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers came to Hollywood to work with Walt Disney in adapting her magical character for the silver screen. Admiration and ambition from both parties creates a somewhat fractious relationship between them as Travers clings to creative control. This is despite her misgivings seemingly at odds with the film’s crowd-pleasing potential as a feel-good musical hit. Director John Lee Hancock mixes Travers’ experience of the film’s pre-production with flashback to discover where her inspiration for the character came from. This serves as a layered and moving character study, where optimism is drawn out of familial sadness and tragedy, alongside the simple delights of stepping inside the dream-making factory that is Hollywood and creating a Disney classic.
Saving Mr. Banks’ charming whimsy is tainted with a guarded nostalgia, the past both informing the film’s backstory like a tall tale built upon moral virtue and playing a crucial role in placing us in its contemporary period setting. This is beautifully realised through the performance of Emma Thompson as Travers, her fastidious Englishness at odds with her more laid back American colleagues. Moments such as her insistence in being called Mrs Travers and her scrupulous attention to the details of making tea correctly are endearing qualities that emphasise how swapping London for Los Angeles has made her a somewhat dazed fish thrust begrudgingly from its water bowl.
The focus, of course, is on Travers, and director Hancock neatly balances her past life-defining traumas with the illuminating trials and tribulations of her present. Of particular importance in flashback is her relationship with her doting father (played by Colin Farrell) while growing up in Australia as a young girl. His increasingly destructive behaviour due to heavy drinking and consequent ill heath is a little predictable, if not contrived, but forms the film’s most important message in how we find inner strength and the qualities of the human spirit in the face of sadness or adversity. As Mr Disney hints, film can give us the happy endings that life sometimes cannot.
If I had a criticism of Tom Hanks, a rare occurrence where I’m concerned, it is that he’s not in Saving Mr. Banks enough. That’s a shame as he’s brilliant as Disney, a man with imagination, kindness of spirit and a keen eye for what audiences want from their on-screen entertainment. There’s a bit of Laurel and Hardy to Disney’s power play with his reluctant author and it makes for some of the film’s funniest scenes. Travers has a similar relationship with other members of the production crew and assistants, my favourite being the friendship she sparks with chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti) where a crabby antagonism gives way to mutual respect. She ends up calling Ralph her only American friend.
However, the lowering of Travers’ guard is best seen in a sequence that seemingly reaches out of the screen to physically force any frown upside down. With her Hollywood creative team seeing the opportunity for redemption in Mr Banks’ fictional character, they create the song Let’s Go Fly a Kite to reflect how a father comes to realise his family is more important than his job. It begins with the sight of Bradley Whitford’s shirt and tie-wearing co-writer Don DaGradi on his knees pretending to be one of the Banks children. He prances about with a mischievous smile while fluttering his arms like a butterfly. This important scene, in which Travers’ creative embargo softens as she rediscovers, possibly for the first time in years, a sense of childlike glee, builds like a perfect musical crescendo to the author accepting DeGradi’s offer of a dance. The sight of Thompson’s toe-tapping gait as she casually dances to the music, arm in arm with DaGradi, is the moment you have to give in and allow the film to reach inside to caress the heart.
If some of Saving Mr. Banks’ quieter moments drift fleetingly into melodrama, it has no problem at the other end of the scale, confidently delivering the laughs when called for. A strong cast helps the film; Emma Thompson’s subtle approach is perfect alongside the more animated Tom Hanks in addition to the talents of Paul Giamatti in a small supporting role. Their performances are complemented by the film’s uncluttered celebration of the creative process at Disney; indeed, it’s the big-hearted hug for one of the studio’s most memorable movies that gives Saving Mr. Banks its very own spoonful of sugar.