In 1938, just as Walt Disney was beginning to feel his first real flourish of success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he contemplated acquiring the rights to an, as yet, little known book by novelist, P.L. Travers, first published in Britain in 1934. The episodic tale of a magical nanny who imparts her unique brand of ‘practically perfect’ life lessons on a sad-eyed brood of impressionable children had captured the hearts of Disney’s two daughters. Walt firmly believed the book had great potential to be turned into a movie. Alas, the author had other ideas, or rather, refused to entertain any of Walt’s. For the next 25 years, Walt persisted and Pamela Travers resisted. But then a rather miraculous set of circumstances came into play to alter the course in Disney’s favor and give birth to what has since become one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. In some ways, John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is the bittersweet tale of how these two stubbornly resolved and immovable objects – Disney and Travers – finally reached their middle ground. But its’ also the very genuine story of an emotionally scarred, and perhaps, even frightened woman, who has kept her careworn past a deep, dark secret from the world, but eventually found it within herself to accept and embrace a new beginning in the twilight of her fading popularity as an authoress.
Saving Mr. Banks is co-written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith; two women who obviously have P.L. Travers in their blood and Walt Disney gently beating inside their hearts. The movie is centered on the last act of Walt’s lengthy correspondences with Pamela Travers to secure the release of the film rights. Evidently, Disney got more than he bargained for, the caustic Travers dictating her edicts to the creative brain trust already hard at work in development on Mary Poppins. What no one knew at the time was that Walt had mortgaged a fair chunk of his assets on Travers eventually saying ‘yes’ to his project. Had she not relented to his gentle coaxing, movie audiences would most certainly have been deprived of a most beloved children’s classic. Many today have forgotten that Walt Disney, although undeniably a visionary with his finger firmly affixed on the pulse of the public’s movie-going tastes, was nevertheless somewhat notorious and chronic in his overextension of capital on single projects. At times, the Disney organization came dangerously close to losing everything and closing its doors for good. Walt, however, was a gambling man. Moreover, he was blessed with an unfathomable ‘lucky streak’ for which lending institutions were more than willing to repeatedly invest in his grand schemes.
And Mary Poppins, alas, was the grandest of them all; a big budget, special effects-laden masterwork to utilize the studio’s accrued technological wizardry, but also star a virtual unknown to American audiences. Jack Warner had, in fact, passed over Julie Andrews to reprise her role as Broadway’s Eliza Doolittle in his production of My Fair Lady for the simple reason Andrews had absolutely zero cache at the box office. But Walt didn’t care so much about Andrews’ reputation as he greatly admired her obvious and formidable singing pipes. But even before Walt had decided on Julie Andrews as his unlikely star, he had an even greater hurdle to overcome: P.L. Travers. And it is this impossibly taciturn, at times dauntingly mean – though never mean-spirited – authoress who Walt needed to impress more than anyone else if his daydreams for Poppins were ever to materialize beyond the preliminary stage.
What we know of this trial-by-fire endured from 1938 to 1964 is largely due to the studio’s immaculately archived correspondences between these two sturdy rocks in their respective fields; Disney keeping in touch with Travers nearly once every six months or so, tenderly imploring the authoress to reconsider her snap assessment of his talents as a filmmaker. It was of no consequence. So long as P.L. Travers could afford to, she absolutely resisted Walt’s kindness; even refusing to entertain his various invitations to come out to California on his coin and see what his studio was capable of creating in its heyday. In hindsight, Travers resistance seems to have been predicated on a general disdain of Hollywood movies, and a more particular mistrust of Walt; that he would somehow transform her pert disciplinarian into a fresh-faced, singing canary popping in and out of chalk pavement pictures and cavorting with unnecessary caricatures from the animated world. Some 50 years removed from the quagmire, we are at a greater advantage, having already seen Mary Poppins and fallen under its spell. But Travers was quite right about one thing; the movie is not the book and Julie Andrews interpretation of Poppins is decidedly less of an authoritarian and more the charmer than the novel’s heroine.
The other great repository essential in our understanding of Travers staunch resistance is Travers herself; her air of discontent and mordant inability to grasp the lighter side of life, or how it might as easily apply to her beloved fictional heroine, is revealed in hours of taped conversations during the preliminary stages of pre-production. Travers insisted upon these documented recordings, presumably intending to sue at a later date if the finished movie did not adhere to her demands as outlined to the creative staff. She might have done better to reexamine her contract first. It gave Walt carte blanche and the discretion to veto her ‘suggestions’. Walt’s invitation to Pamela was therefore something more of a professional courtesy and less collaboration than Travers might have hoped for or anticipated. Still, Walt did endeavor to ‘please’ the authoress. Arguably, no one could. But at least Walt tried.
Saving Mr. Banks deviates marginally from this historical record, suggesting Walt still needed Travers’ seal of approval in order for pre-production to move forward. In actuality, the rights to Mary Poppins had already been secured by Walt by the time Pamela arrived in Los Angeles for her consultation meetings – Travers, very reluctantly relenting to the request made by her agent because of her own financially strapped conditions. The movie bears this out, but takes a few more artistic liberties along the way; mainly in presenting something of a détente between Walt and Travers as principle photography neared its end.
The truth is that Pamela Travers attended Mary Poppins’ premiere under agented duress, still insisting to Walt that he cut all the animated fantasy sequences from the movie. Vetoing P.L. Travers was rather like christening a battleship with a bottle of milk; the curdling in Disney’s relationship with the authoress complete after Travers left the premiere in tears – not of joy, as depicted in Saving Mr. Banks, but anger for what she perceived as an absolute bastardization of her literary masterpiece. After Mary Poppins’ triumphant premiere, Travers and Disney never spoke again and Travers absolutely refused to acknowledge the movie on its own terms – even refusing to watch it for the next twenty years, but sincerely vowing to never again allow Walt to make a movie from any of her other books.
On the surface it’s difficult – if not entirely impossible - to understand a woman of such acerbic irritations; moreover unfathomable to comprehend how anyone could not love Walt Disney at a glance. Saving Mr. Banks presents neither historical figure as saint nor villain; the casting of Tom Hanks as Walt and Emma Thompson as the uppity Brit, necessitating slight alterations in the way each ‘character’ is handled. For starters, Hanks’ Disney is not above occasionally losing his temper. Disney’s enduring reputation as the benevolent, even-keeled custodian of our collective childhood memories has all but blunted the essential appreciation for Walt Disney as a man first (with all the foibles and failings as the rest of us), beloved visionary genius second. In embracing this reality, Saving Mr. Banks neither negates nor dismisses our flawed mis-perceptions of Walt as this perfect specimen. To do so would have spelled sacrilege as easily as ‘supercalafragilisticexpialadocious’. Instead, the screenplay and Hanks’ palpably engaging performance massage us into a better empathy of Walt Disney and his quiet struggle to remain above it all.
Conversely, the movie’s P.L. Travers inevitably softens to Walt’s magic touch; Emma Thompson managing the coup of making the rather severe authoress’ mannerisms and abject defiance seem quaintly pert, if marginally clipped and even, modestly attractive. The genius of the film is that it allows the audience behind the curtain of these two towering figures in their respective fields of creativity; the Marcel/Smith screenplay taking great pains to ease us into the reoccurring backstory that will ultimately shed new light on the real reasons behind all of these mutual frustrations endured. Less successful is the teeter-totter effect of director John Lee Hancock interpolated flashbacks; the device becoming clumsily uninspired.
Showing us P.L Travers as a precocious girl is a little bit like peeking through a keyhole into a very unhappy childhood tinged with heartbreak and tragedy. The flashback device allows us to see another part to a character we only think we understand. But Hancock has used the flashback herein whenever the Marcel/Smith screenplay paints itself into a corner. At the start, at least, some attempt has been made to provide a causal link between the present and the past; a trigger for Travers’ memory into these bittersweet past regressions. However, as the movie continues Hancock increasingly ping-pongs between these distant recollections, offering the audience nothing beyond dramatic shifts in locale and his narrative timeline. If he isn’t altogether successful in this transitioning, neither does it sink our overall enjoyment – thank heaven! And by the end of Saving Mr. Banks we do come to a well-rounded appreciation of what transpired from page to screen, though regrettably, not beyond; the movie abruptly ending on some semi-hubris that suggests Walt’s Mary Poppins was a cathartic experience for Pamela Travers. By all accounts, there was no such epiphany.
Despite Hancock’s inability to end the film on a high – or even competent note – Saving Mr. Banks does excel rather neatly for most of its 125 minute run time. This is largely due to the nuanced performances given by Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson; also because of the rather heartfelt enactment by Paul Giamatti as Ralph, the chauffeur hired by Walt to drive Travers to and from the studio. Less promising is Bradley Whitford as Mary Poppins’ director, Don DaGradi, Jason Schwartzman – a rather ineffectual and somewhat effete, Richard B. Sherman – one half of Poppins’ composing team – and, B.J. Novak, a decidedly slimmed down version of his brother, Robert B. Sherman. Ultimately, all of the aforementioned remain little more or better than stick figure caricatures of their flesh and blood counterparts. But even as pretenders to the throne they are occasionally unsuccessful at conveying the real human emotions of their alter egos. A good rule of thumb when casting any movie loosely based on someone’s life ought to be that the principle cast at least look and behave like their real-life equals.
True enough, Tom Hanks is no Walt Disney – physically speaking. But at least Hanks conveys Disney’s mannerisms, his sheer joy, and his congeniality often pushed to the extreme by Travers constant inability to grasp his determination with kindness. And Thompson, although much younger than Travers, is once again able to transport us into the mindset of her character; to communicate P.L. Travers on a more instinctual level beyond mere looks. The rest of the cast is competent, but that’s about it and it’s a shame too, because they never manage to fully regress us back into the 1960’s; behaving more like contemporaries caught in a time warp beyond their control, looking rather goofy in their vintage duds and crew cuts.
The infinitely more satisfying past regression in Saving Mr. Banks takes the audience all the way back to the turn of the century; Colin Farrell unexpectedly potent and poignant as Pamela’s alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff, stricken with tuberculosis, and Ruth Wilson as her emotionally shell-shocked mother, Margaret. It’s something of a minor regret that Rachel Griffiths, herein cast as Pamela’s Aunt Ellie – and the inspiration for Travers fictional heroine, Mary Poppins – is barely glimpsed. It is, after all, partly Poppins’ story John Lee Hancock is attempting to tell. But the importance – nee influence of Ellie on the Goff family in general, and pint-sized Pamela in particular (played with exquisite emotional fortitude by Annie Rose Buckley), is never truly felt in these flashback sequences. Arguably, Saving Mr. Banks spends its time more judiciously in outlining the mitigating sadness and hardships endured by all the Goffs and how it eventually came to inspire the newly rechristened P.L. Travers to write her iconic masterpiece. In the past, I have often been criticized in my reviews for wishing a movie other than the one presented to me. ‘Review what’s there and move on,’ at least, so I’ve been told. But at 125 minutes, the Marcel/Smith screenplay seems to have stiffed us on at least a few necessities that would have elevated their craftsmanship in this exercise to a more befitting and nostalgic level. Ah well, it is what it is, and fairly good at that; occasionally rising to an inspired high-water mark that all too few recent movies have.
We begin in London, circa 1961, with a financially strapped Pamela Travers encouraged by her agent, Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert) to entertain Walt Disney’s latest offer to transform her children’s classic, Mary Poppins into a movie. Travers is decidedly averse to any adaptation. But Russell explains, “the money’s run out, Pamela” and eventually succeeds in getting Travers on a plane to Los Angeles. Walt’s interest in Travers’ book stems from a promise he made to his daughters some twenty years before – to make a movie of their favorite children’s book. Upon her arrival in L.A., Pamela is given the royal treatment with a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel chocked full of Disney memorabilia. But this only adds insult to injury, as Travers has come to regard Walt as something of a hack. She disdains cartoons and fears he will badly mangle the characters in her book.
Stuffing all of Walt’s goodwill into a backroom closet, and hurling a pair of limes from his fruit basket out her balcony window into the hotel’s pool, Travers and director Hancock are ready to regress us all the way back to 1906 for the first of several flashbacks. We are now in Allora, Queensland – the inspiration for Mary Poppins; with a pint-sized Pamela very close to her charismatic father, Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell). Goff is a charmer, despite his lack of personal satisfaction in his work at the bank, medicating his disdain with a losing battle against alcoholism. Despite his flaws, Goff can do no wrong in Pamela’s eyes. Her mother, Margaret, knows better.
Back to the present (or rather, the present circumstances as depicted in the movie), Travers is chauffeured to the Disney Studios by the ever-optimistic, Ralph. Pamela finds her driver’s inquisitive good nature rather intrusive and makes every attempt to discourage his conversation. Nevertheless, Ralph is more bemused than put off by Pamela’s harsh words and persists in befriending her. It isn’t going to be easy; something screenwriter, Don DaGradi and composers Richard and Robert Sherman quickly discover upon meeting Travers at the front gates. Pamela dismisses them all in short order, insisting to forgo the prearranged studio tour and meet with Walt immediately. Walt’s jocular attitude remains unabated, despite Pamela’s terse attitude toward him.
From the outset their working relationship is strained, Travers staunchly insisting Mary Poppins is the enemy of ‘sentiment’ and ‘whimsy’; undeniably Walt’s stock in trade. Given the novel’s fantastical elements, Walt is genuinely perplexed by Pamela’s disdain for fantasy film-making. He has, after all, misperceived the authoress’s own richly imaginative childhood as being somewhat idyllic. In flashback again, we see Pamela’s formative years were anything but cherished. Her father has slowly begun to lose his grip on reality; his confrontational attitude with various employers, including his latest, Mr. Belhatchett (Andy McPhee) forcing the family to constantly downsize their lodgings, eventually settling in the outback on an indigent parcel of land. Goff’s personal dissatisfaction, misperceived as a chronic betrayal to the family by his wife, causes Margaret to briefly attempt suicide. Pamela follows her mother down to a nearby watering hole in the middle of the night where she intends to drown herself, thus narrowly averting the disaster. Goff contracts tuberculosis, her mother’s sister, Aunt Ellie arriving to care for the family as his condition worsens and promising Pamela she will make everything better.
Alas, no one can stave off the inevitable consumption that eventually claims Goff’s life; Pamela mourning the loss with bitter tears, then later disavowing this former life by changing her name; her grief momentarily exorcised by the opportunity to make amends for the past in writing Mary Poppins, the story of a magical nanny who comes to an ailing family and restores their faith in humanity by saving their father from his own set of circumstances. Because Walt has no such knowledge of this backstory, he believes the fictional Poppins has come to the Banks’ household to save the children from their father; a miscalculation that infuriates Travers and causes her to storm out of the studio after one particularly adversarial story meeting. Walt reinvests and doubles his efforts to procure Pamela’s satisfaction; inviting her to ‘the happiest place on earth’ – Disneyland – and even cajoling her to partake in a ride on the Fantasyland carousel.
In what is perhaps the heart of the movie, Ralph confides in Pamela about his handicapped daughter; the two creating a makeshift bandstand and lake while seated on the front lawn outside the studio, using nothing more than their imagination, a cup of coffee, the remnants of a few dried leaves and a paper cup. Later, as Pamela prepares to depart from the airport, Ralph tells her it’s been a pleasure to drive her around. She confronts him at first (after all, she’s been quite a lot to handle) but then realizes his sincerity in the compliment as paid, offering to autograph his daughter, Jane’s copy of Mary Poppins and sharing with Ralph a list of famous individuals – all of whom suffered some physical malady, but were able to triumph beyond it and achieve great personal successes in their lives.
Flying back to London without having signed away her consent, Pamela is startled to discover Walt on her front stoop. She invites him into her home and he relays a story from his own childhood; about his demanding and strict father; presumably the reason he has spent his whole life and career striving to be a benevolent patriarch to the children of the world. It’s a concocted moment, written especially for the movie, with no equivalent from real life. And yet, it manages to convey the essence of these two presumably wounded souls; one having chosen kindness as his medication, the other been locked away for far too long in an emotional purgatory, largely of her own design. Pamela signs the forms of consent and Mary Poppins goes into production.
Months later, Walt is encouraged by his wife Lillian (Dendrie Taylor) to send Pamela a personal invitation to the premiere. Walt resists, believing Travers will use the opportunity to besmirch his efforts in the press. Assured that Pamela has no intention of flying back to Los Angeles, Walt is visibly startled when Travers, goaded by her agent, does in fact resurface in his office, finagling an invite to the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Saving Mr. Banks concludes with several key sequences from Mary Poppins’ debut; generating positive reactions from the opening night audience, but causing Pamela to openly weep; presumably because she realizes that, together, she and Walt have managed to restore something of her beloved late father’s reputation through his fictional alter ego, Mr. Banks, played by David Tomlinson.
Saving Mr. Banks is an understated and generally well-conceived biopic. Its’ impetus began in 2002 when Australian producer, Ian Collie made the documentary, ‘The Shadow of Mary Poppins. Believing the tale could best be told as a fictional film, Collie prodded Essential Media to develop the feature with Sue Smith hired to write the screenplay. Eventually, the project outgrew these modest beginnings, BBC and Ruby Films coming to the table with co-writer, Kelly Marcel, who removed a subplot involving Travers and her son and crystalized the narrative along its past/present parallel narrative structure. Knowing the movie could not be made without the complicity of The Walt Disney Studio, Collie first submitted the script to Richard Sherman, who backed it with his support, thus helping ease it through the proper channels; first to current studio president, Sean Bailey, who weighed his options with CEO Bob Iger and Chairman Alan Horn; either purchase the script and shut the production down, put the film in turnaround, or coproduce it themselves. Mercifully, the latter option was chosen. As the studios’ first choice to play P.L. Travers – Meryl Streep – was unavailable, the part was next offered to Emma Thompson who jumped at the opportunity.
Saving Mr. Banks is incredibly well researched; its adherence to period best exemplified by Michael Corenblith production design, luminously photographed in a sort of golden/sepia-tinted wash by cinematographer, John Schwartzman. At times, this stylized lighting and look of the film seems to inadvertently blend the two periods into one visual patina; 1906 and 1961 appearing to have hailed from the same deliberate coloring and mood. Does it work for the movie? Hmmm…arguably, yes. The Walt Disney Company also made several requests before giving their green light to the project, chiefly in having Hancock omit all visual references to Walt’s chronic smoking habits. Disney, of course, died of lung cancer in 1966, but the omission was made herein more so for the studio’s present-day stance against the dangers of inhaling cigarette smoke and to avoid an R-rating from the MPAA. In the final analysis, Saving Mr. Banks is a minor triumph; a testament to Walt’s perseverance and the magic of making great movies. Were it only true of the Disney organization’s commitment to quality family entertainments derived from those time-honored precepts today.
Disney’s Blu-ray is the pluperfect compliment to this heartwarming movie; everything you might expect and hope for from a sparkling 1080p transfer with reference quality visuals, razor-sharp crispness, superb color fidelity and exceptional contrast and grain. There’s no two ways about it: you are going to love – LOVE – this disc. The DTS 5.1 sound is, bar none, fantastic; Thomas Newman’s delicate underscore enveloping all surround channels. Dialogue sounds natural too. The singular disappointment herein is in the extras. At just under 15 minutes, director John Lee Hancock’s guided tour of the past and present Disney Studios is a junket produced without much consideration for getting to the real meat and potatoes of the studio’s illustrious history. We also get less than 10 minutes of deleted scenes and less than 2 minutes of the movie’s cast serenading the real Richard Sherman with ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’.
Disney Inc. hasn’t had my vote of confidence for some time. They seem to have all but abandoned plans to release any more of their vintage live-action catalogue to Blu-ray (no sign of Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the original The Parent Trap, Old Yeller or other noteworthy titles in the studio’s back catalogue) while they’ve also quietly omitted 101 Dalmatians and Aladdin from a North American Blu-ray release. I’ve all but given up on ever seeing Song of the South again!). While the studio has done right by the transfer quality on Saving Mr. Banks, they have once more made short-shrift of their extra content. At this late stage in the home video game to release any new movie without a comprehensive audio commentary is just plain wrong! Bottom line: recommended, but with the aforementioned caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)