“Hanks charms as Walt Disney, but it is hard to be too charmed by a man who wants everything his way and gets it.”
Saving Mr. Banks is, at its simplest, a story about telling a story, as Walt Disney and company try to adapt the book Mary Poppins. To add complexity to the plot, the book’s author, P.L. Travers, is not willing to simply throw her story to the highest bidder, and the film cuts back and forth from Travers’ time working with Disney to her childhood in Australia. The film starts off as a balanced narrative, and mimics that balance in the actions of the major characters. Travers is trying to balance the underlying pain that inspired her text with Disney’s family friendly requests of upbeat musical numbers and animated penguins. Disney’s staff is trying to balance their boss’ orders with Travers’ constant criticism. But ultimately the film’s scales end up tipping, leaving the audience with a far too simple finale and a picture that will not likely be as indelible as the film, book, or lives that inspired it.
The film begins with a young Travers playfully interacting with her father before quickly introducing the audience to Travers as an adult. It is clear that the jubilant child from the opening scene is long gone. Travers is stubborn, and only agrees to a potential adaptation of her work after she is reminded of her financial woes. From the moment the driver picks Travers up at the airport, it is clear that she is calling the shots and will not be bossed around by anyone, not even Walt Disney. Early in the film she mentions two things she does not want in the adaptation: musical numbers and animation. Any fan of the film version of Mary Poppins knows that Travers does not get her way, a detail that is probably supposed to pique the interest of the audience and have them grinning a knowing grin.
While revisiting the story often brings painful memories of her childhood to the forefront of Travers’ mind, many of the scenes of her dictating what is wrong with the screenplay and storyboards are funny and light. In one of the funniest scenes, she chastises the song writers, Robert and Richard Sherman, for creating the word “responstible,” and forbids them from simply making up words. Richard responds by hiding the lyrics to arguably the most famous song from Mary Poppins, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” As Travers continues to provide her input, she also begins to warm to the Shermans as well as to the screenwriter, Don DaGradi, and begins to open herself up to the feelings of childlike joy and wonder that Disney films supposedly inspire.
Hanks charms as Walt Disney, but it is hard to be too charmed by a man who wants everything his way and gets it, especially when Travers sacrifices so much. And that’s one of the problems I have with the film. A film about a Disney production made by the Disney company is likely to focus more on making Disney (the man and the company) look good. Still, Thompson shines as the conflicted Travers. Of every plot, characterization and idea that is contained in the film, it is perhaps only Thompson’s performance that ever truly strikes the right balance and feels complete and authentic, even if it is not a completely authentic representation of Travers’ life.
I always approach biographical films with an open mind. I know that many crucial events are left out, and other events are dramatized. I know that sometimes one character in a film is an amalgamation of several people from the true story. But I was left feeling quite bothered by the artistic liberties taken with Travers’ life, particularly the catharsis that the adaptation process seems to give her. In a film that is about a woman’s struggle to keep the integrity of her story in its adaptation, I think it is rather unfortunate that neither film stayed completely true to Travers.
Review by Bethany Rose, Contributing Writer