Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, including unsettling images
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell and more
Is doing something well enough to justify the fact that it probably shouldn’t have been done at all?
“Saving Mr. Banks,” Disney’s version of the making of “Mary Poppins,” is a quiet movie with moments of unexpected depth, sweetness and humor. At the same time, it’s a slice of history that was probably too slight to justify a feature film, whitewashed for no other reason than to give it a happy ending. My heartstrings were tugged while I was in the movie theater, but as I walked out I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with that fact.
The film tells the story of Walt Disney’s attempt to secure the rights to “Mary Poppins” from P.L. Travers, who hated pretty much everything Disney wanted to do to it. The hatred is 100 percent accurate to history, though in the real world Travers only grew to despise both Disney and the movie more after the film was released.
Emma Thompson is wonderful as Travers, acerbic and impossibly difficult in a way that characters are so rarely allowed to be in Disney movies. She has a deft way with a witty barb, but is equally capable of portraying a great well of emotion rising up beneath a brittle surface. As always, she’s a joy to watch.
Paul Giametti is a treat as Travers’ driver, a gentle soul whose basic decency and kindness is lovely rather than cloying. Tom Hanks is warmly likeable as Disney, but anyone at all familiar with his career knows that isn’t a stretch for him.
The most surprisingly delightful part of this section of the movie, however, are the performances of several iconic songs from “Mary Poppins.” I hadn’t thought I remembered half of them, but sitting in the theater I found myself tapping my feet and grinning. Occasionally, I couldn’t resist even singing along (quietly, of course).
The movie also jumps back into the past, alternating the “Mary Poppins” scenes with ones from Travers’ childhood in Australia. This storyline is far more traumatic, focusing on the slow crumbling of her father to alcoholism and sickness. Colin Farrell does an excellent job as Travers’ father, a dreamer who adored his daughters but kept getting crushed by the weight of reality.
By combining the two storylines, basic Disney narrative almost demands that history be changed to create some sort of hope or catharsis. That’s almost the theme of the movie, the way fiction can heal or redeem past scars, and as a writer myself I will admit the idea brought tears to my eyes.
But while the movie gives Travers some sense of peace, the existence of “Saving Mr. Banks” seems designed to redeem no one but Disney Studios. They were within their rights to do with “Mary Poppins” as they saw fit Р I personally love the animated penguins Ms. Travers despised Р but to remake themselves into emotional heroes seems like the most profound sort of narrative cheating. That’s whitewashing, not redemption.
I know Disney didn’t write “Saving Mr. Banks,” but it doesn’t surprise me at all that they greenlit it. Remembering ourselves as better than we really are is one of the great temptations of being human.
But there was no need to make an entire movie about it.
Want to know what Dan thinks of the movie? Check out his review here!