The story about how Mary Poppins the book became Mary Poppins the movie received barely a nod from the Golden Globes or the Academy. A common gripe was that Disney Pictures had produced a film that featured Walt Disney himself as a major character, prompting accusations of Mickey propaganda with all of Disney’s rough edges buffed and shined anew. It’s a fair point, to be sure, but it would be a shame if audiences overlooked Saving Mr. Banks. Here is a good film that, at its finest moments, was more emotionally wrenching than some nominated heavyweights, Gravity and Philomena among them. As the advertisements have kept telling us, there’s more to the story than you thought you knew.
Our first image of the middle-aged Poppins author, Mrs. P.L. Travers, is of a severe woman sitting at her desk, lips pursed, as ramrod straight as the lines on her angular plaid dress. She will soon decide to fly to L.A., where Walt Disney, the man himself, will try to charm her into signing off the rights to her beloved book, which she is adamant she won’t do despite being broke and needing the money. Along the way, she is never at a loss for words to cut people down and she never goes by anything other than Mrs. Travers. The good-hearted people she meets—from the kindly chauffer to the well-meaning editor to the cake-delivering secretary—can’t understand why Pamela, er, Mrs. Travers, is so wretched and uptight. Even Disney and his merry team of writers struggle to crack this nut.
Sometimes Saving Mr. Banks is that movie: the cheery, sentimental one where Disney and his crew show a cold woman how to feel again and live arm in arm with a cartoon mouse. But, more often than not, it is richer and more emotionally wrought, a movie about heartbreak and the stories we tell ourselves to cope. Balancing out the cheer is the narrative of a young Pamela “Ginty” Travers watching her lovely and infectiously joyful father slip into an alcoholic abyss, unemployment, and finally a sick bed. If this doesn’t sound like a fun movie at times, it’s because it isn’t.
Part of the joy of the film is seeing Mary Poppins’ creator rail so vehemently against the now-classic Mary Poppins scenes and songs. Disney and Travers are constantly butting heads, and caught in the middle are a band of writers who are left to hash out the script with her line by line. She cringes at the suggestion of dancing penguins, abhors the idea of casting Dick Van Dyke and we’re likely to see her explode at the mention of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Writers can commiserate with both sides.
When Travers isn’t scoffing and criticizing, however, she’s reminiscing back to her childhood in Australia, memories often triggered by a song or a storyboard. Her father is played by a scene-stealing Colin Farrell, which is saying something given that Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, and Paul Giamatti round out the cast. Always quick with a story or a fun game to be played, he is clearly the children’s favorite. The fact that he is so joyously, effortlessly captivating makes it that much harder to watch when he starts to hit the bottle.
I suspect that many people, especially those who have watched a loved one succumb to alcoholism or other diseases, will experience some form of catharsis at the sight of Travers becoming aware of her own father’s illness and demons. For a Disney film, this portrait is surprisingly unflinching, to the point where I was actually convinced that the audience would be subjected to witnessing an onscreen suicide. Were the film repurposed to focus only on this sobering narrative thread, it may have garnered more critical acclaim. Alas, though, we get our sugar with our medicine, and perhaps that’s for the best.
Back in L..A., it becomes clear that Travers views a stern Mary Poppins as the remedy to all of the seeming pitfalls of her father’s whimsy, which is Disney’s stock and trade. The plot centers on resolving these differences, and the drive of the movie becomes a sort of chipper examination of the art of adaptation. In fact Mr. Banks is like the light, child-friendly form of the manic masterpiece Adaptation, by Charlie Kaufman. Some have taken the ending to be too saccharine, with A.O. Scott interpreting the film’s logic to suggest imagination being used as a form of repression. I think that’s looking at the picture too simply—indulging in a little whimsy becomes an act of acceptance for Travers, but it’s too painful of a process to ever be considered denial.
Even by the end, the question may still haunt you: Why did Disney make this film? Are you being manipulated into falling in love with Disney? Is this crass commercialism? Oh, it feels like it at times, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’re likely to forget your nagging suspicions, even if only for a few scenes. In a pivotal scene, Walt Disney tells Travers of his own abusive childhood. “I don’t tell you this to make you sad,” he says when he’s through. No, this movie wasn’t made just to make you sad, but neither was it to keep you happy. To its credit, I believe it finds value in both pursuits beyond the bottom line.