Film review: Saving Mr Banks

Disney’s Triumph of the Walt is supercalifragilistic propaganda wites Donald Clarke

Saving Mr Banks - Trailer

Film Title: Saving Mister Banks

Director: Donald Clarke

Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 125 min

Fri, Nov 29, 2013, 00:00


It seems unlikely that the folk behind this sentimental if irresistibly scrumptious paean to mid-20th-century escapism would admit to any postmodern intent. Still, there is something weirdly self-referential about Saving Mr Banks.

The film seeks to anatomise the development of Walt Disney’s deservedly beloved 1964 adaptation of PL Travers’s Mary Poppins. Along the way, it reminds us how the studio polished off any rough edges and constructed an absurdly idealised version of Edwardian London. Proudly set-bound, shrouded in crisp, box-fresh costumes, Mary Poppins made no secret of its devotion to the unreal.

John Lee Hancock’s new film is equally uninterested in dirty naturalism. As embodied by the perennially cuddly Tom Hanks, this Walt Disney has little in common with the commie-bashing, racially insensitive tyrant of (possibly scurrilous) rumour.

All skies are sapphire. Motorcars gleam deliciously. Nobody is seen smoking a cigarette (though Disney is briefly seen concealing one). California looks so much like a glossy theme park, you wonder why any of its citizens would bother visiting Disneyland. In short, this is a film about Mary Poppins set in the world Mary Poppins inhabited.

None of this would, on the film’s own evidence, have much pleased Pamela Lyndon Travers. Overdoing the brittle vowels just a tad, Emma Thompson turns the author into a Thatcherite Minotaur of unyielding fury. For many years she has resisted all entreaties to turn her popular books into Hollywood movies. Eventually, laid low by debt, harassed by an insistent Disney, Travers agrees to make her way from London to LA.

Everything appals her: the heat, the forced informality, the piles of sugary food. From the start, it’s clear that Travers will invent any impediment to halt the production in its tracks. She bans the inclusion of any animations. Despite the irrefutable sweetness of the Sherman Brothers’ songs, she resists the notion of turning Mary Poppins into a musical. At one stage, she even seeks to ban the colour red.

A series of flashbacks reveal why she is quite so protective of the material. Raised in Australia to a flattened mother (underemployed Ruth Wilson) and a drunken father (reliably charismatic Colin Farrell), Travers reinvented herself in a manner that we more often associate with the US. Mary Poppins was based on a character who rescued the family and brought purpose to drifting lives.

It shouldn’t need to be said that Saving Mr Banks – produced by the company that still bears Walt Disney’s name –argues that family entertainment can soothe such lingering scars. Travers softens just a little as a result of her friendship with an adorable chauffeur (Paul Giamatti). The Shermans’ songs get under her skin. A fireside chat with Uncle Walt eventually nudges her into reluctant acquiescence.

The film is such unashamed propaganda, it may as well have been titled Triumph of the Walt. Like all such exercises, it trades in a fair few obfuscations and half-truths. Far from coming round to Disney’s aesthetic, Ms Travers remained so antagonistic to the film that, when Cameron Mackintosh came to develop a stage version 40 years later, she stipulated that no Americans of any stripe be involved in the production.

It would, however, require a hard heart to sit through Saving Mr Banks and remain wholly on Travers’s side. The bounce, fizz and intoxicating optimism of High Disney is conveyed with such effectiveness that one will forgive Hanks’s invention any enormity.

Nonetheless, Travers did ultimately triumph, and not just because she kept Disney out of the stage version. With the massed power of online fans behind them, few contemporary authors are forced to accept the compromises imposed on the author of Mary Poppins. Do you think any modern producer would have got away with turning Harry Potter or Twilight into light-hearted musical romps? Virtual heads would have ended up on virtual pikes.