Most people of a certain age recall their first time seeing Mary Poppins, the Disney confection about a brisk and no-nonsense nanny who tightens up the Banks family ship before departing on a favorable wind into the mists of, well, London. What most people don’t realize is that making this movie was, for Walt Disney, a decades-old challenge, as he cajoled and begged author P.L. Travers for the rights. Travers, however, was not inclined to let her favorite creation become an animated bit of fluff. Moreover, ceding rights to Mary Poppins meant more than a much-needed paycheck; it meant possibly revealing the deep psychological ties Travers had to the story, which was a neatened up version of a troubled childhood.
Saving Mr. Banks—the title refers to Travers’ fight to maintain the character’s innate dignity and not turn him into a stodgy bore—is surprisingly good. It basically tells two separate but related stories. One, set in the early 1960s, involves Disney and his team trying to dislodge Travers from her adamant stubbornness on all creative decisions relating to Mary Poppins; the second, set in 1906 in Australia, is Travers’ remembrance of growing up with an adored, although alcoholic, father who encouraged her flights of fantasy.
The earlier story is haunting, seeming to come right through the perspective of the child that once lived in all of us. We see the enchantment Travers finds in imagination, but we also see, from the furrowed brow of her mother, the challenge of staving off the wolf at the door with a partner who isn’t really keen to grow up and take responsibility. The more modern chapter is a little psychological, as we see the adult Travers struggle to come to terms with her father’s legacy and her own memories of him. Thanks mostly to the spot-on performance of Emma Thompson as the author, we never quite go into Lifetime movie territory. Indeed, Thompson is starchy and unlikable, unable to bear fools, or kind people like her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti), lightly, so one can imagine how she takes to the songwriting team who come up with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Tom Hanks, as Disney, provides excellent counterbalance to Thompson. Much has been written that this Disney is whitewashed, and that the entire movie is a shameless promotion of all things Mickey. I completely disagree. What comes across in Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s script is two opposing personalities and styles of living, with Disney enjoying the moment to the fullest and Travers hung up on serious control issues. We get an excellent sense of the imagination which played a significant force in Disney’s overall success, but he doesn’t come across in the movie as perfect or whitewashed. As he did with The Blind Side, director John Lee Hancock takes a potentially messy situation, what with all that daddy angst percolating through Travers’ veins, and tidies it into an entertaining, ultimately compelling story, one that is unexpectedly rich in feeling and poignancy.