The two decade crusade by Walt Disney to bring his daughters favourite book Mary Poppins to the screen forms the dramatic thrust of Saving Mr. Banks. Based on a script that was on the ˜Black List’ of Hollywood’s best unmade films in 2011, director John Lee Hancock has brought it to the screen in a charming and sometimes heart-breaking fashion.
In London 1961, Mrs. PL Travers (Emma Thompson) is preparing for a trip to Los Angeles to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to discuss signing over the rights to her book Mary Poppins. During her journey and eventual stay Mrs. Travers begins to think back to her young childhood and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell). Sceptical about Disney’s intentions for her beloved book and character, Travers treats those who are working in it with contempt and dismisses their plans to partially animate and add musical numbers to the film.
Splitting its time between a wonderfully realised 1960s Los Angeles and turn-of-the-century Australian outback, Saving Mr. Banks puts PL Travers front and centre of the narrative. Her young self, played with an innocent wonder by Annie Rose Buckley is caught between the enchantment and disappointment toward her father. Colin Farrell imbues the man with incredible imagination and charisma that belies the dark and distressing alcoholism that would cause him and his family such torment. It is his erratic behaviour that would ultimately lead to Travers’ aunt appearing to save the family and on whom Mary Poppins is clearly inspired.
The highlights of the film happen in a small meeting room where the perfect Thompson scolds both Disney and the musical talents of the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak). The audience knows what the final outcome will be, but it is the snippiness of Thompson’s Travers that provides the best comic moments. The fact that she imbues her creation with a streak of melancholy means that she never falls on the wrong side of caricature.
The rare moments when she allows her inner child out form some of the most uplifting and fist-punching moments of the year. If Mary Poppins is a story about the father of the family, Saving Mr. Banks is about the child, and like the finished article, it is the song ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ that forms the dramatic turning point for Travers. It is a tour de force from one of the best actors working today and is more than worthy of recognition come awards time.
Like Disney’s masterpiece there is an element of fantastical whimsy that never allows the darkly dramatic truth from being fully uncovered and presents a sweetened version of reality. While it may have been interesting to see this darker take, it isn’t really necessary for the narrative, and the blend of reality and fantasy help propel Saving Mr. Banks from a simple biopic into something quite magical.