Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers heads to Los Angeles to discuss selling the rights to making a movie of her beloved book to Walt Disney.
John Lee Hancock, 2013
After having denied Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) the rights to Mary Poppins for years, the film follows Travers (Emma Thompson) as she makes her way to LA to meet with the creative minds who have already started adapting the film to see if Disney can convince her that he can make the movie she wants him to make. They play her the songs and act out the scenes, but Travers is old-fashioned and resolute. She refuses changes at every turn; to her, Mary and the Bankses are family, and she won’t sell them unless she deems it absolutely worthy. While in LA, Travers strikes up an unlikely friendship with her optimistic limo driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti). Meanwhile, flashbacks show her childhood in Australia and her close relationship with her alcoholic father. Disney struggles to find common ground with Travers until he discovers a secret that gives him insight into her world.
There’s something about the entire experience of watching this film that I found…awkward. Not bad, just uncomfortable, like the princess lying on a pile of mattresses and still feeling the pea underneath. It’s so sentimental, piling on layers of cushioning to characters who by all accounts were unpleasant in a number of ways. Hanks’s amiable Disney pushes Travers around in person, and only reveals his understanding of her when speaking to other people; Travers, on the other hand, has absolutely no qualms telling everyone to their face precisely how she feels. In a scene where she speaks to Ralph about his daughter, I got the feeling that she knew there was something different about herself; Emma Thompson’s portrayal is full of obsessive behaviours and social disfunction, but you root for Travers anyway. Her fierce love and protection of her characters is understandable and redeeming, and the constant flashbacks serve to explain her need to save Mr. Banks. (You know how in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade there’s that one flashback where River Phoenix is awesome and every single one of Indiana’s character traits and every part of his iconic look is explained on a circus train? The flashbacks in this film have a similarly convenient feel, as though a person’s whole persona can be explained by a few months of their childhood.) Colin Farrell plays her father with convincing charm, and the young actress who plays “Ginty” (Travers’s father’s nickname for her) is a talented Australian kid called Annie Rose Buckley. Ruth Wilson puts in a valiant effort but a terrible accent as Ginty’s mother, but Rachel Griffiths is the real saving grace of those scenes.
Emma Thompson is wonderful, giving us a sympathetic portrayal of a difficult, borderline unlikeable woman, as is Paul Giamatti as her affable driver; Tom Hanks does fine as Disney, imitating the man’s cadence and presence well. The film also gives us surprise!Bradley Whitford (it’s possible most people knew he was in this, but I didn’t, and was therefore delighted when he showed up), who is an absolute delight as Don DaGradi, the scriptwriter for Mary Poppins. Jason Schartzmann and BJ Novak put in a pretty good show as the two songwriters as well. The film is at its best when exploring the real challenges of working with someone with whom you can find absolutely nothing to agree on; every adult has experienced a situation like this one, and it’s interesting to see the different ways the characters handle it. A few of the cheesier scenes work, for instance when the boys act out “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for Travers the film really takes off (pun intended). Later, Disney gives Travers a speech about imagination that is incredibly moving and reflective of why, even with the commercialism and sentimentality of Disney, we still fall for the magic, and why people still tell these stories. There’s too much sentiment, though, with only Emma Thompson there to bring us back from it; she’s holding the movie up on her own, and while she does a good job, there’s still something missing.
Saving Mr. Banks on IMDb