After watching the trailer for Saving Mr. Banks, I expected a light-hearted comedic historical film about how the classic Disney film Mary Poppins came together—but what I got was both much darker and more enjoyable than the film I had anticipated.
The movie follows Mary Poppins creator Pamela L. Travers, played by an impeccable Emma Thompson, as she flies to early 1960’s L.A. to determine if a deal can be reached with Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, to adapt her popular children’s book into a film. As depicted in previews, Travers’ proper British [manners] and fierce protectiveness of her characters clashes explosively with Disney’s upbeat, happy-go-lucky insistence that there must be both animation and musical numbers in the film version. At times their differences are amusing, usually thanks to the impeccable comedic timing of Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, who play Disney songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman. At other moments, their disagreements are disturbing and uncomfortable to watch, the relentless persistence of Walt seeming almost foreboding as we watch him eventually ignore almost every one of Travers’ stipulations.
Running parallel to this narrative is the story of Pamela’s childhood, revealed to the audience in short sequences, beginning with idealistic scenes of her playing with her father and turning ever darker as we watch his descent into alcoholism. Though some felt the flashbacks were too long, distracting from the overall narrative arc of the film, I thought they added a lot of dramatic tension, as well as more fully fleshed out the character of Travers. It was startling to see the sweet, innocent, imaginative girl Ginty (as she is called by her father) juxtaposed with the bitter and neurotic adult Pamela—besides wanting to know how the Mary Poppins plotline was resolved, I was desperate to know what caused this transformation in Travers.
In pairing these two narratives, Saving Mr. Banks manages not only to tell the story of Travers’ and Disney’s interactions, but also touches on much deeper themes. It beautifully depicts a side of alcoholism I’ve rarely seen in feature films, showing how a good man, a bright, beloved man, succumbs to alcoholism, but is never completely subsumed by it, as his family struggles to cope with the havoc this disease wreaks in their lives. The film goes to great lengths to ensure that viewers understand that Traver’s father is more than his alcoholism, somehow simultaneously condemning and forgiving him. It is heartbreaking, and at times very difficult to watch.
The film also succeeds as an intimate portrait of a very strong woman. Walt Disney appears much less often in the movie than trailers suggest, and the bulk of screen time is given over to Pamela and her memories. Emma Thompson portrays her unflinchingly, though not unsympathetically, as she rebuffs every suggestion the Disney team makes about the Poppins film, and makes impossible demands, stipulating at one point the color red not appear in the film. She is often rude, always uncompromising, but she also possesses another important quality—strength.
Despite promises of money, which Travers desperately needs, Pamela will not abandon her faith in her own vision or cow to Disney’s oppressive insistence that his vision for the film is the best one. All the while, Travers is coping with the traumatic childhood memories that the changes Disney tries to implement bring up. Rarely in Oscar-contender caliber movies are a woman’s eccentricities and neuroses given such attention and room for exploration, especially when they are women as uncompromisingly cantankerous as Thompson’s Pamela. Walt Disney and the other characters in the film are bit players in a movie that is, at its heart, the story of a woman dealing with her demons.
The spirit of that story is only compromised by the film’s ending, which works well enough for a movie, but rankles me because it lands rather far from the truth. Viewers know the whole time that of course animated penguins will appear in the movie, and of course the color red will be included, and songs Travers hates like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” will become classics—it’s almost like we’re watching the deceit of Disney unfold before our eyes, a story playing backwards as we watch Hanks’ Walt insist that he won’t turn Pamela’s story into one she neither recognizes nor likes. The end of the film would have us believe that though Travers continues to hate animation and Dick Van Dyke, her opinion of the movie is redeemed because it depicts Mr. Banks, the father of the Jane and Michael, sympathetically, even though he is at time cruel (hence the connection to Travers’ father and where the film takes its name). In real life, Travers was horrified at what had been done to her story, and not only refused to let Disney make a sequel, also stipulated in her will that no American was ever again to be involved in an adaptation of one of her stories.
Even so, this betrayal, almost certainly unintentionally (since this is a Disney movie), somehow gives the film more meaning for me. Thompson’s excellent performance, even as part of a Disney production, is so transcendent, so embodies the life of this enigmatic woman, that she convinces me to remain on the side of Travers rather than the Mouse. To watch her life and opinions manipulated for the sake of this movie makes me even more enamored of her, and adds a great deal of depth to her disagreements with Disney as they are depicted on screen. It’s very…meta, and more than a little uncomfortable. It is unsettling for such a strong woman to continue to be manipulated by men (The filmmakers! The Disney corporation!) even after her death, but Thompson’s remarkable performance somehow allows the real Travers to fight for herself even within the confines of this Disney PR-approved movie.
I’ve already made my feelings known concerning Emma Thompson’s performance in the film, but Tom Hanks also deserves a nod of appreciation. Though he receives much less screen time than Thompson, he seems to effortlessly embody the legend of Walt Disney, both his almost-magical veneer and his unyielding business-like mind. These are undoubtedly two of the best performances of the year, and Saving Mr. Banks manages to be a rare breed of film that is funny, heartbreaking, infuriating, fascinating, and thought-provoking at the same time. As long as viewers remember not to take the Disney-fied version of events at face value, I highly recommend it.
Guest blogger is Jessica Jordan, MuggleNet Journalist