Reviews in the Nick of Time: Saving Mr. Banks

by wjw on January 19, 2014

I was surprised that Saving Mr. Banks received only one Oscar nomination (for Original Music), since it’s such a well-written, well-acted film with a powerhouse cast of past and future Oscar contenders: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman.   Thompson is terrific, and Hanks is very good, even if he’s somewhat inconsistent in rendering Walt Disney’s Missouri dialect, and everyone else inhabits their characters very well indeed.

So for anyone who’s been living in a bucket for the last month or so, Saving Mr. Banks is about the San Andreas-shaking conflict between PL Travers and Walt Disney over Disney’s turning Travers’ creation Mary Poppins into a film.

If this had been a normal Hollywood film, it would have been a comic romance about two bickering people eventually coming to love one another, like another Tom Hanks film, You’ve Got Mail.  But since one of the characters is necessarily Walt Disney, the cooperation of the Disney studios was necessary, and that meant there could not be any suggestion of extramarital romance.  Walt’s character — while not sanitized exactly— is simplified in the direction of the avuncular figure that he played on television.  (No successful studio head is that nice all the time, I’m sure.)

Since Walt has to be the Good Guy, that means that Travers is, if not the Bad Guy, at least the Obstacle that the ingenious Walt has to overcome in order to make the glorious, classic piece of entertainment that is Mary Poppins, the film.

And Travers is quite the Obstacle, as it seems she was in real life.  Embedded in the film are scenes set in Travers’ Australian childhood, with a charming, alcoholic father (who oddly claimed to be Irish but wasn’t), a suicidally depressed mother, and a remote station in the Australian outback.  Or, as Emma Thompson put it, “I think that she spent her whole life in a state of fundamental inconsolability and hence got a lot done.”

Travers was a much more interesting, gnarly, and well-traveled character than the overwrought spinster depicted in the film, but the story isn’t a biopic, it’s a fairy tale of how a piece of entertainment got made, and some simplifications are necessary if we’re going to fit the story into 127 minutes.

So Travers is the knotty, tumultuous Obstacle, with the source of her problems in her unhappy childhood.  So what she needs, obviously, is to be psychoanalyzed by Herr Doktor Walt, whose kindly persistence finally breaks through her defenses and wins him the contract to make his immortal movie.

I have to admit that my sympathies lie entirely with Travers, as the author trying desperately to preserve the integrity of a deeply-felt work against a Hollywood tycoon who sees dollar signs in the air (and Reds under the carpet).  And I’m pleased to report that Travers was indeed very well compensated for the film rights— how cheapskate Disney must have ground his teeth!— and lived for another thirty-odd years on Disney’s money, and with sufficient resources to keep turning Disney down in the matter of a sequel.  (She did cooperate with a later effort to turn Mary Poppins into a musical stage play, with the proviso that no Americans be involved in the production on any level.)

She lived on unhappily, apparently, but people have the right to be unhappy if that’s what they want.

I must admit I didn’t much care for the movie when I saw it as a child, though I liked the songs pretty well.  So the scenes of everyone melting down in joy and happiness and treacle at the premiere didn’t exactly move me.

Travers was at the premiere, having invited herself.  The film shows her weeping at the cinematic realization of her internal codes and conflicts as diagnosed by Doktor Walt.  She did in fact cry, but the tears were tears of rage as she realized how she’d been had.

So I liked Mr. Banks— it’s a fine, well-acted fairy tale— but as history it’s bunk. And Disney’s Mary Poppins lives on, both for those of you who like it and those who don’t.

Or maybe for those of you who just watch it for Dick Van Dyke’s surreal attempts at a cockney dialect.

Oz January 19, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Well, that’s just it. I completely divorce Mary Poppins, the movie, from Mary Poppins the book. I don’t assume they have much in common beyond the title. DVD’s attempts at a cockney accent amuse. The silliness of the entire production amuses. It does indeed enthrall a child, the kid has played it over and over, especially when not feeling well. I respect that.

But I never liked Disney’s murders of various stories and books, whether sanctioned or not. One had to accept the film as something other, a fairy tale, as you said, though he was rather murderous to those as well.

I don’t really want to see the movie, having realized that it rewrites history with such a heavy hand. And that’s saying something because Emma Thompson is one of my favorite actresses to watch.


Mirko January 24, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Emma Thompson is not in nomination Oscar: Scandal. She as great talent.

roberta pyle February 7, 2014 at 9:26 pm

I have seen and enjoyed Disney’s “Mary Poppins” many times since childhood, and I enjoy it though is a sweet bit of fluff and Julie Andrews is not nearly as acerbic as her counterpart in the books (which I have read several times). I have also seen and enjoyed the stage musical, which is a little darker and less sugary than the movie (Brimstone and Treacle, anyone?) I enjoyed “Saving Mr. Banks” very much. It may have been a “fairy tale” version but I enjoyed the battle of wits between Ms. Travers and Uncle Walt, and was moved by the odd friendship that grew between Travers and her driver.

I admit to being a fan of Disney’s animated fairy tales, though I like the newer ones with strong minded heroines (Belle, Mulan and Merida come to mind) rather than the sweet drippy little heroines either waiting to be rescued by their prince charming (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White) or willing to give up absolutely everything for their man (The Little Mermaid) That said, I just love the look of the Disney cartoons.

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