With Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti. Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images. 125 minutes.
Film critic Richard Schickel called his book about Walt Disney The Disney Version, which would also be a good subtitle for SAVING MR. BANKS. Here is the Disney Studios’ story of the making of their classic 1964 film, “Mary Poppins” with none other than beloved star Tom Hanks as Disney himself. It’s certainly fair to call this movie “inspired” by true events, but don’t confuse what you see on screen with the unvarnished truth. The reality was a lot messier than anything you see here.
We start with the facts: P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was an extraordinarily difficult woman who had no interest in seeing her books about the nanny Mary Poppins made into a Hollywood movie. For years she was pursued by the folks at Disney, supposedly because Walt’s daughters loved the books. In the early 1960s she was in financial straits and agreed to come out to California for a series of meetings which, at her insistence, were tape-recorded (we hear one of the actual tapes during the closing credits). Eventually, she agreed and the movie was made with Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke, becoming one of Disney’s greatest all-time hits.
The movie captures all this and if you have fond memories of Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” it’s a chance to wallow in nostalgia. B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman play the Sherman brothers, who did the film’s memorable score, and we watch them bring it to life. Even Travers, who didn’t want music or animation in the film, is shown to be taken up by “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (although utterly disdainful of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). We watch genial Uncle Walt take her to Disneyland where he is surrounded by adoring crowds.
The film even nods a bit to the darker sides of the story. Disney was a chain smoker but was careful not to smoke in public as it would hurt his image. Once the movie is made, Travers is pointedly not invited to the Hollywood premiere and has to––in effect––crash the party. The film gets across that Travers was a curmudgeon who made life difficult for everyone around her, although it barely scratches the surface.
Here’s where “Disney magic” starts replacing reality. You wouldn’t know from this that Travers hated the movie to the point that she would not sell the movie rights to any of her other books to Hollywood. We’re led to believe her problems were due to a beloved but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) who appears in flashbacks and died while she was still a child. So in true movie fashion her tough exterior is breached by a warm and kindly driver (Paul Giamatti) and Walt himself when he shares with her the difficulties of his own childhood. The title of the movie comes from Disney supposedly realizing that Mary Poppins shows up not merely to help with the children but to redeem the parents. As portrayed by Thompson, Travers is the classic character who is tough because she’s suffered but is really a softie inside. The real Travers might be as appalled by this depiction as she was by Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”
All that is not to say that the film isn’t engaging and well-acted. It’s just that “Saving Mr. Banks” has as much (and as little) connection with the true story as the movie “Mary Poppins” has to do with the book Mary Poppins. If you can enjoy this as a fictional gloss on the real story, it is quite entertaining. If you walk away thinking that Disney finally won over Travers who loved what he did with her work, you’ll have jumped into one of Bert’s chalk pictures and left the real world behind.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.