Saving Mr. Banks – Film Review

The portrayal of the Australian born author of the Mary Poppins novels as being tenacious, stubborn and ultimately somewhat mean, as shown in the new Disney film Saving Mr. Banks is incorrect.  By all accounts, P.L. Travers was much worse.

Pamela Lyndon Travers immigrated to England from Australia in 1924 where she began writing her series of Mary Poppins novels.  For almost twenty years throughout the forties and fifties, none other than Walt Disney personally tried to persuade the prickly mannered author to sign over the movie rights and allow him to make a movie musical of the magical nanny, but Travers was having none of it.

Your book sales have dried up,” her nervous agent tells her in the opening moments of the new film, “And you refuse to write anymore.”

The truth was, by the early sixties, P.L. Travers needed the money.  Once Walt Disney invited the author to fly to Los Angeles, all expenses paid, in order to sway her opinion on the notion of signing over the rights, Travers reluctantly agreed.  I don’t want to loose my house,” she laments, and after insisting she would have final say on all aspects of the finished screenplay, she packs her bags.

What follows is a series of meetings between song writers the Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwatzman), script writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) who between them try to show the obstinate woman exactly how they would have nothing but respect for her fictional character.  You don’t know what she means to me,” Travers states and becomes the woman who says no to everything.

“I won’t have you turn her into one of your silly cartoons,” she tells Disney, and for a brief moment you see the hurt in Disney’s eyes.  Travers never cared for film as an art form, plus she had a disdain for the happiest place in the world, Disneyland, calling it a dollar printing machine and tells Disney that the mere idea of going there sickened her.

Most of what you see and hear in Saving Mr. Banks is essentially true.  Travers insisted that all meetings between her and the Disney team were recorded, so what we have in many of the scenes that take place at the Disney studios are recreations of things said on those tapes, and she treated everyone with equal disdain for the few weeks she stayed in Hollywood. 

Saving Mr. Banks is a quality production that charms, delights and draws you in right from the beginning   Films that take place within the movie industry have a tendency to be appreciated more by those already involved in the trade, like an indulgent, inside joke not always understood by those on the outside, but Saving Mr. Banks is a hugely entertaining biographical drama that can be easily appreciated and understood by all.  It avoids the insider information revolving around the complicated mechanics of film making or even the business of trying to put on a show and concentrates simply on the conflicts between America’s national treasure, the Walt Disney empire, and one irritating though enormous roadblock.  The only thing the film assumes the audience will know is the character and the story of the 1964 Walt Disney musical.  Everything else is explained as it goes along. 

It is nothing but sheer pleasure to watch British actor Emma Thompson as she achieves the impossible by making a basically wretched personality almost human.  The woman’s meanness to all around her is of Dickensian proportions, and that’s no exaggeration.  In an interview, Thompson called P.L. Travers ‘vile.’

 

Tom Hanks brings a wonderful sense of down-home, folksy charm to Mr. Disney.  There’s actually a sweetness and a vulnerability to his performance that has you siding with the movie mogul as soon as you meet him.  In any generation there are certain performers who because of a career of consistent, outstanding work coupled with a winning personality earn the right of being considered something special in the movie industry.  Like Cary Grant, James Stewart and Henry Fonda before him – names that will survive long after others of that same generation are forgotten – the work and the name of Tom Hanks will live on.  That’s no hyperbole.  Whether you’re a fan or not doesn’t matter; it’s a fact.

However, the thing to remember the most about Saving Mr. Banks is even though the essence of what you see is true, not everything happened quite in the way the film portrays.  The film has Travers finally warming to a musical version of her beloved character, and even has the woman moved to tears while watching the magical film at the Los Angeles premiere.  The real Travers was mortified.  She hated the film, despised the inclusion of animation and reviled Disney for the rest of her life because of it.

We know how shamefully despicable the woman was to the Disney execs by the playing of one of the authentic tapes depicting her protests and refusals during the closing credits.  You can hear her repeating, “No, no, no’ several times while males voices politely dance around her, trying to make her happy.  But in the end, in true Walt Disney fashion, the studio ultimately has the last laugh.  In revenge for the way she treated Disney and his executives, the studio works its movie magic on her: it presents her as ultimately likable. 

 MPAA Rating: PG-13   Length: 120 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

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