SAVING MR. BANKS isn’t like many other biopics, and it’s like next to no films about filmmaking. Movies that retell notoriously troubled productions have a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify for the sake of smooth storytelling, yet often turn out to be much duller than the real events being depicted (see: HITCHCOCK). Saving Mr. Banks has depth, and as a Disney-endorsed feature it surprises as well, never pulling punches in terms of the really dark places the plot goes (though the House of Mouse has always dabbled in the upsetting) and also in that even good old Walt doesn’t quite emerge unscathed.
Following a 20-year back-and-forth of pleading, bribery and emotional blackmail, in 1961 P L Travers (Emma Thompson) finally agreed to travel to California to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and hear his plans for her beloved and precious literary creation, the magic moral nanny Mary Poppins. Travers does not take well to her American hosts, who are ever friendly and accommodating, but far too forward, informal, and, well…cheerful for her liking. Walt, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), songwriting prodigies the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and her chipper Hollywood driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti) all try and thaw the frosty Travers to little avail, and one of the greatest and most fascinating off-screen cinematic battles in history begins…
Neither Walt Disney, nor the story’s main focus Travers are presented outright as the baddie, but both are shown to be hugely creative forces of nature very used to getting their own way. They both have their reasons for loving the character of Mary Poppins, and their driving force, their main motivation in life, can be traced back to the beginning in both their cases. They’re presented as polar opposites in some respects (manner, public persona, loves and hates) but very similar in others (imagination, near-obsessive attachment and deeply-rooted childhood issues). Whether or not much of the story is true to life, and no matter how much dramatic embellishment was involved, Saving Mr. Banks makes for a great story to tell, and is a wonderful, moving and tender way to spend a couple of hours.
As the celluloid MARY POPPINS we all recognise begins to emerge (much to the horror of Travers) the film shifts tone from gentle biog-comedy-drama and threatens to become a full-blown musical. As the Shermans belt out tune after tune, and their catchy numbers blend into Travers’ emotionally scarring memories of her father (Colin Farrell), the considerable double-whammy of heart and soul is disarming, and will reduce all but the stoniest hearted to lip-quivering wrecks. The flashbacks themselves, and how they fit within the main narrative feels organic and elegant, seamlessly reinforcing key character developments rather than feeling like gimmicky, unnecessary distractions. We’re there with Travers as a wide-eyed and imaginative young girl (the enchanting Annie Rose Buckley) playing with her father in the sun-drenched Australian countryside one moment, then we’re whipped back to the older, more cynical author grimacing at jolly showtunes.
Often with biopics, with big stars playing another iconic persona, there isn’t much room for subtlety, and the script often leaves a lot to be desired – “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” as the saying goes, and audiences are often distracted from weaknesses in the words on the page by a chameleon on the screen. This is not the case in Saving Mr. Banks. It has subtlety, nuance and wit. It’s one of the strongest all-round screenplays of last year, and credit should go to the intelligent writing of Kelly Marcel as well as the impressive performances of Thompson and Hanks (and Farrell also deserves recognition). She gives Disney and Travers (father and daughter) – whatever faults they had in life – a real humanity, an utterly compelling empathy. She plays with the real events, streamlining them and always tying what happens back to what made these two remarkable people who they were. It makes for a fascinating character study. The parallels between Travers’ formative years and the characters she created (and Disney and co. tried to warp) are clever and affecting, from the author using the names of people she knew as a child in her books, to her incorporating a idealistic “what if” of her father’s fate in the character of Mr. Banks. Again, much of it might have been made up, but it works really well for the story, and everything serves a purpose.
Director John Lee Hancock and Marcel do get some key details right – the Sherman Brothers’ mannerisms and performance style, Travers’ distaste for animation (and Dick Van Dyke), Disney employees’ behaviour towards their formidable leader (using “man is in the woods” after BAMBI as code to announce Walt’s arrival) and we even nearly get to see Walt smoking (those in charge of Disney’s public image wouldn’t quite allow that to be depicted, but we do get his booming smoker’s cough and him hurriedly stubbing out a cigarette).
It might not be revolutionary, in fact it’s proudly old-fashioned, but Saving Mr. Banks is an extremely well-rounded, sturdy and thoughtful piece of filmmaking. A documentary might reveal more about what actually happened (especially if someone miraculously managed to silence the Disney lawyers) but the story embellishments, musings about what might have happened, and two thoughtfully layered lead performances with able support from fellow cast members always emphasise one thing above all – character. The film works as a biopic, as a comedy-drama-musical about an infamously troubled film production, but where it really excels is as a character study, a film about what made two giants of imagination who they were. SSP