That’s the question central to Saving Mr. Banks, and it’s up to Walt Disney, of all people, to solve the mystery. Movies like this one can be challenging, because the whole key to the problem of the movie is, “Just stop being a bitch!” Too often, this journey feels artificial and forced, with an antagonist who is willfully obstinate for the sake of conflict in the movie.
That isn’t exactly the case with Saving Mr. Banks, for at least P.L. Travers’ prickliness feels true to her nature, and she never gets too warm and fuzzy. But it’s a movie about how the warmth, love, and ingenuity of one man can touch the hearts of minds of young and old alike, made by a studio that still pushes that man’s message to the max more than 50 years after his passing. As well-intentioned as much of the movie is, it’s hard not to also view it as a commercial for Disney films, Disney theme parks, Disney toys, and the whole monopolistic Disney mindset. To a skeptic, it may come off a little worrisome, maybe even a little gross.
Then again, the whole point of Saving Mr. Banks — and Mary Poppins, for that matter — is for old grouches to stop being so grouchy, so we skeptics have been put in our place before we even walk into the theater. How about that?
Saving Mr. Banks is the story of P.L. Travers, creator of the Mary Poppins character, who is dead set against her beloved children’s novel being adapted by Walt Disney. Except, you know… she kinda needs the money. Proper Englishwoman Pamela — who’d really preferred to be called “Mrs. Travers,” thank you — travels to Los Angeles, a land she isn’t initially very taken with, to meet with Uncle Walt, whom she also isn’t very taken with. She has not yet sold the rights to the Mary Poppins character and insists on script approval, which means she can nitpick at everything from the scene headings to banning the color red from the picture entirely. This is the kind of film in which Mrs. Travers’ deepest bond will be with a good-natured limo driver played by Paul Giamatti — and when she inexplicably tosses pears off of her hotel balcony, you just know we’ll get a flashback to a childhood trauma involving pears before the movie’s over.
Along the way, indeed we do get flashbacks to Pamela’s childhood as an Australian girl whose alcoholic father Travers Goff (Colin Farrel) is charming to her, less so to the adults forcing him to answer for his weakness. The depiction of Travers’ alcoholism is very Disney and probably very watered down. It isn’t until quite late in the film that Travers Goff’s alcoholism actually has potent consequences, and even then, it isn’t all that traumatic. No, things don’t end well, but P.L’s traumatic youth doesn’t quite justify or even explain her middle-aged frostiness. (There’s a brief appearance from a Poppins-like figure played by Rachel Griffiths, but her character is largely and unfortunately unexplored.)
The too-frequent flashbacks do an otherwise decent drama no favors, stalling an already slim story in its tracks. Ironically, there are few things less cinematic in this world than writing a screenplay, and that’s the process Saving Mr. Banks takes us through in its 1960s-set scenes. The film jazzes it up with B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Shermans, the musical team responsible for such iconic numbers as “Spoonful Of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” The song-and-dance numbers do what Disney does best, which is use familiar music we’re fond of to manipulate emotions. Who won’t be moved when Mrs. Travers and the boys start spinning around the room in joy while belting “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”? Nobody! (Though they may hate themselves for it afterward.) It worked in Mary Poppins, and it’ll work now.
Saving Mr. Banks is, perhaps accidentally, quite fascinating on a meta level. P.L. Travers is skeptical of all things Disney. She has no interest in visiting the park (though they do, briefly), despises “cartoons,” and views good ol’ Walt himself as a shuckster who just wants to turn her cherished creation into another mega-money-making theme park staple. (Mission: accomplished!) It’s amusing to see a Disney movie about a character who despises the man behind the mouse, stuffing plush Plutos, Donalds, and Mickeys into the closet of her Beverly Hills hotel room to de-Disney Walt’s warm welcome. Emma Thompson is particularly good at nailing Travers’ standoffishness, a role that may earn her an Oscar nomination for the first time in quite a spell.
But isn’t it supposed to? In the end, Saving Mr. Banks is quite the calculated affair. We’re meant to see Mrs. Travers’ difficult nature as something that must be overcome — and can be, with some peppy musicals numbers and a jaunt to the Happiest Place On Earth. P.L. criticizes the Mary Poppins script for being all sugar, no medicine, and perpetuating looney myths about childhood, but she may as well be talking about Saving Mr. Banks. In this movie, our protagonist criticizes everything Walt Disney stands for, but guess who wins in the end? And guess who is still winning, since we’re watching this pat family-friendly drama all these years later?
Saving Mr. Banks capitalizes on its audience’s built-in love for Mary Poppins, which tells us that all of Disney’s ideas are the right ones, and all of P.L. Travers’ notions about being true to the original story are wrong. But is she really? The woman survived a rough childhood and then wrote a very popular children’s novel hoping to prepare young kids for the rough ways of the real world. How would you feel if you did all that, and some theme park mogul came along waving his checkbook, trying to convince you that the best course of action for a book so dear to your heart, so tied to your past, is to stick some animated penguins in it and turn it into a musical? Maybe the penguins actually weren’t necessary, Walt.
Writers don’t get their due in this (or virtually any other) movie, so whatever. Of course this Disney-made movie celebrates merriment over harsh life lessons, fantasy over reality. It’s hard to consider Saving Mr. Banks seriously when the people who made it have such a vested interest in preserving Walt Disney’s legacy. And since Mary Poppins did indeed become a Disney classic, who’s to say sacrificing the integrity of P.L. Travers’ original story wasn’t worth it?
Saving Mr. Banks probably isn’t trying to be particularly meta, but it does at least dip a toe into the water, questioning whether children are better served with colorful distractions from or serious preparations for the bitter realities of an adult world. Unfortunately, the film’s dullest moments are the non-musical, rather joyless flashbacks to P.L.’s bleak childhood, which suggest that Disney’s approach is the better one after all.
It’s unfortunate that Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t draw a deeper connection between Walt and Pamela, further examining their very different approaches to children’s entertainment, and perhaps instead finding some value in each. Saving Mr. Banks isn’t interested in such criticism, preferring instead to serve as an advertisement suggesting that it’s time to watch Mary Poppins again — and hey, kids, hasn’t it been a while since the ‘rents took you down to Disneyland?
Even with the best of efforts, there’s something hollow about these movies that exist primarily to feed off our nostalgia for other movies. Last year’s Hitchcock was a far greater debacle, and the recent Black List has not one but two scripts concerning the making of Jaws. (Meaning we’ll probably see at least one of them come to fruition.) Is that what we’ve come to in 2013? Have we surpassed the adaptations, sequels, and remakes and gone straight for entertainment centered around better movies than the one we’re watching? If we can’t remake certain classics better than they already are, must we watch movies that are about how good they are? Weren’t Jaws and Psycho and Mary Poppins so good because of their ingenuity and originality? (The Oscar win for The Artist was another harbinger of this troublesome trend.) There’s no better way to spoil a perfectly great film than to beat us over the head with how wonderful it is. Are you, yourself, the best person to author the story about how terrific you are? Disney seems to think so.
I hate to be such a grump, because in the end, there’s nothing wrong with making people happy — unless, maybe, it makes the author of the source material miserable in the process. Saving Mr. Banks is a perfectly entertaining movie, at times even a delightful one, though certainly not a substantial one. (Let’s keep the Oscar nods to a minimum, mmkay?) Mary Poppins would suggest I go fly a kite to lift my spirits, and maybe I should. But I think I’ll take P.L. Travers’ approach and add a spot of whiskey to my tea. Because all in all, I’d probably prefer that original, non-singing, tough-love, penguin-free vision of Mary Poppins instead.