A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, or so the song goes. And while there’s certainly liberal sprinklings of sugar throughout “Saving Mr Banks”, director John Lee Hancock and star Emma Thompson ensure there’s sufficient bittersweet complexity that the whole mixture avoids becoming cloying or syrupy.
The film splits its narrative in two, with the 1961 negotiations between Walt Disney and the fearsomely prickly Mrs P L Travers for the film rights to Mary Poppins prompting the latter to relive her childhood in Australia which provided much of the inspiration for the Poppins books.
Richly laced with acerbic humour, the 1961 scenes provide a satisfyingly light and pithy contrast to the unfolding tale of Travers’ idealistic and loving but ultimately flawed father as he battles disillusionment and alcoholism.
Thompson delivers a magnificent performance as the complex and contradictory Mrs Travers, portraying her simultaneously as a lonely, fragile woman desperately trying to protect characters which to her are more than family as well as the strident, scornful perfectionist, ever ready to deliver a withering and choicely-worded put down. She bristles with a very British formality and much of the comedy initially comes from the collision between Travers’ world of primness and propriety and Disney’s casual and relaxed approach to life. Tom Hanks here portrays Walt Disney the legend, the genial dream-weaver who created an enduring wonderland through his creations and interpretations. This is very much the public Walt Disney, host of TV’s “Walt Disney Presents…” although every so often, Hanks allows a glimpse of Walt Disney the driven creative artist and shrewd business man to peek through.
It’s through her interactions with Walt, the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B J Novak) and Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) that Travers begins to reminisce about her childhood although perhaps a more significant relationship ends up being with her driver Ralph, played by Paul Giamatti. The mercurial and infinitely versatile Giamatti is great here as the ‘sunny side up’ carefree driver who gradually shares with Travers the reason for his happy-go-lucky demeanour and eventually earns the accolade of being the only American she ever liked.
Colin Farrell anchors the scenes in 1907 and plays Travers’ father with such gentleness and candour that despite the fact you know how events are increasingly likely to unfold, you find yourself wishing fervently that somehow he will be able to pull himself out of his spiral, for his and his daughters’ sake. Credit must go too to Annie Buckley as the young “Ginty” Travers for giving the scenes she shares with Farrell such emotional weight.
As the two stories intertwine, they bring new insight into almost every aspect of the Mary Poppins story, how the characters and the film came to be created and what they represent. “Saving Mr Banks” is, ultimately, a story of redemption, not rescue.
Of course, this is still a Disney film so there is an element of whitewashing or cherry picking. Both Disney and Travers are portrayed in a favourable light and there is no mention whatsoever of the more unsavoury or salacious aspects of either person and while hitting the broad strokes of the end of the story, it shies away from depicting just how unhappy and angry Travers was with the finished product, a disappointment so profound that she resisted all attempts to licence further Mary Poppins adaptations right up until 2004 when she acquiesced to a musical adaptation, provided (as stipulated in her will) that no Americans, and nobody from the film production were to be involved in the production.
While Mrs Travers may have had her issues with Disney’s “Mary Poppins”, “Saving Mr Banks” is a film with few faults. An utterly charming and unexpectedly moving story of the creation of one of Disney’s most unique and cherished films, this is a film to be savoured and enjoyed. Not only for shedding some light on the creative processes of two of the 20th Century’s most unusual and idiosyncratic artists but also adding some darkness and depth to the whimsical tale of a magical English nanny. You’ll never watch “Mary Poppins” in quite the same way again.