Saving Mr. Banks plays on the same sweet spot that attracts us to oral histories about our favorite television shows and behind-the-scenes stories detailing how a classic song was written. As much as we love the stuff that we love, we’re also undeniably curious about how that stuff came into being—how a few mortals came together and created something that will outlive all of us.
Despite its likable sheen, breezy style and occasional emotional wallop, Saving Mr. Banks makes the mistake of minimizing, as opposed to illuminating, the creative process that went into a classic family film. In telling how the Oscar-winning Mary Poppins saw the light of day, director John Lee Hancock and his collaborators have crafted an idea of moviemaking that argues that films are really just big therapy sessions where everybody eventually gets over their personal issues and produces cinematic magic. That’s a comforting notion, and certainly Saving Mr. Banks every once in a while conjures up a sense of how art helps people transcend their private pains. But it’s also a little too easy.
The movie stars Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the caustic writer of the Mary Poppins books, which were far more biting than the Julie Andrews film that was adapted from them. Living in London, Travers refuses to sell the rights to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), convinced that he’ll turn her beloved ornery character into another of his schmaltzy cartoons.
But with money running low, she may have no choice. Even then, though, Travers refuses to capitulate to Disney. Instead, she agrees to a proposition: She’ll take his money and fly to Los Angeles to oversee the adaptation, but if she’s not happy with how it’s going, she won’t grant him the rights to complete the project.
What we have is an appealing contrast in personalities: Travers’s grumpy realist versus Disney’s amiable, enthusiastic showman. That’s enough for a pleasurable night out, but Hancock (The Blind Side) and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith want to give their story more weight by illustrating why Travers’ refusal to budge on any changes to her character wasn’t just a byproduct of her stubborn temperament. Through a series of flashbacks, we see Travers as a little girl (Annie Rose Buckley) in Australia, where she lived with her family and fell under the sway of her adoring, daydreaming father (Colin Farrell), whose alcoholism never kept him from encouraging her imagination. As Saving Mr. Banks moves along, we become aware that there’s a clue in the author’s past—something that still haunts her—that’s connected to her present-day resistance to Disney’s ideas to bring Mary Poppins to the screen.
Saving Mr. Banks comes a year after Hitchcock, another movie about the making of a great movie—in that case, Psycho. But where Hitchcock wanted to illustrate how important Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville was to the director’s work, Saving Mr. Banks makes the case that it was Disney who helped Travers reconcile with a mysterious childhood trauma, thereby allowing Mary Poppins to enchant millions of moviegoers. Even if that’s entirely accurate, the way that catharsis plays out in Saving Mr. Banks feels too glib to trust. The movie tends to make simplistic connections between the scenes we see in Travers’ past and the alterations that Disney and his cohorts (specifically Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, who play, respectively, screenwriter Don DaGradi and composers Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman) bring to her work. The way Saving Mr. Banks tells it, there wasn’t a single moment in the making of Mary Poppins that didn’t trigger hurtful memories for Travers, who looked at her books as a way to address (although not exorcise) those demons.
You can’t fault the leads for the movie’s questionable thematic undercurrents. Thompson, delightful if a bit one-note, savors her character’s every eye-roll and crinkled nose as Travers becomes increasingly exasperated with Disney’s planned alterations. And as Disney, Hanks strikes a nice balance between projecting sincerity and smooth-talking charm, a combination that both calms Travers while also fanning her suspicions that she can’t quite trust him.
But Saving Mr. Banks isn’t a fair fight between these two combatants. For one thing, we already know the outcome: One way or the other, Travers must have agreed to sell the rights, or otherwise there wouldn’t have been a Mary Poppins. Additionally, the film slowly but insistently suggests that it’s not Disney who has to bend but Travers. Although she came up with the character and wrote the books that entranced Disney, Travers (like many main characters in biopics about creative types) has to overcome an internal obstacle to reach her great success. That mystery is hidden in the flashbacks, but it doesn’t take long to deduce that it has something to do with her relationship with her father.
But it isn’t enough that Travers has to conquer her inner obstacle—Disney and his creative partners have to show her how to do it. Although the film has great affection and compassion for Travers, there’s a self-congratulatory air to the proceedings that’s off-putting. Released through Disney Studios, Saving Mr. Banks goes beyond being a salute to the making of Mary Poppins to offering an extended high-five to Walt Disney’s ingenuity and insight into people. Intentionally or not, Hancock has put together a movie that asserts that certain talented people like Travers have to get over their childhood issues—and if they can’t, well, wise sage Disney is here to help. Saving Mr. Banks isn’t cruel or smug in this insinuation, but by positioning Mary Poppins’ filmic odyssey as something that happened almost in spite of Travers, it’s nonetheless insulting.
And yet, one can’t discount how moving Saving Mr. Banks can be, particularly near the end as we reach Mary Poppins’ premiere. Though sometimes simplistic and patronizing, the movie’s notion that artistic expression helps connect an artist with an audience is palpable, underlining how the magical images we see on the screen don’t come out of thin air but, rather, from the anxieties, inspiration and dreams of many individuals who are just as flawed as we in the audience. That ineffable mystery of creation is what draws us to behind-the-scenes tales. But Saving Mr. Banks just leaves you wondering what the real story was.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell
Release Date: Dec. 13, 2013