SAVING MR. BANKS Review: A Father-Daughter Dance
When I first began writing, it was in the area of fiction. For years, no matter what the format (numerous short stories, several screenplays, and even a novel), I wrote in a vacuum; no one read my stuff but me. I was mostly fearful of being judged. When I created something artistic (in the most literal of senses – I’m not calling my writings “works of art” by any means), that thing was an extension of me. It was borne of my thoughts and feelings and decisions; it took hundreds of hours of outlining and writing and rewriting and editing; it took additional hours to overcome writer’s block; and so on. In many ways, it was like having a child. To have someone read it, then do anything from give it a simple thumbs up/thumbs down to parse the work at the sentence level, was more than I could bear to watch each child go through.
In Saving Mr. Banks, author P.L. Travers had similar reservations about her novel, Mary Poppins. Hers was not a fear of judgment, though; it was a fear that Walt Disney would do a great injustice to the source material – material with a much more tangible family connection – by his vision of its film adaptation.
The year is 1961 and London resident P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the popular book Mary Poppins, is broke. With the flow of royalties stopped and nothing new in the creative pipeline, Travers is forced to give serious consideration to selling the rights to her characters to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who has been pursuing her for those very rights for the past 20 years. Disney’s intent, of course, is to turn the book into a film. This greatly concerns Travers, who views Disney’s work as silly, and she doesn’t want her Mary Poppins to become just another corporate cartoon character.
The author travels to Los Angeles, where she first meets with Disney, then the film’s creative team of screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the sibling songwriting duo of Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, respectively). During her two-week stay, she is a daily nightmare to everyone, remaining unrealistically protective of her work and savagely wielding the power she has over the creative process (approval of everything from script to songs to set design) to veto each suggestion. She has her reasons, all of which stem from her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell) when she was a young girl living in her native Australia, and how that relationship translated to her book.
I did not see coming everything that I got in Saving Mr. Banks, and it made a considerable difference in the viewing experience.
Of course I got what I expected, which was something of a “genesis of Disney’s Mary Poppins” tale. When Travers reaches L.A., the Poppins script and a good portion of its music are complete, so what remains is a page-by-page script review. There is an excellent balance here between how-the-sausage-is-made and how Travers’ forceful personality affects what will become the final product. All of these scenes rely heavily on the music of Poppins, which is a delight to hear in such a simple (piano only) form, and which bring forward to mind so many wonderful memories of the film.
The supporting cast here does a solid job capturing the vibe of the time and the frustration of the situation. While Whitford is fine, he’s mostly making his Josh Lyman character from The West Wing era-appropriate. It’s the duo of Novak and Schwartzman that help really sell the scenes, along with the contributions from the actresses playing other Disney office staffers. There is also the role of Ralph the chauffeur, wonderfully played by Paul Giamatti. This is a critical role, as his is the character who gets closest to Travers, and (not surprisingly) Giamatti really delivers.
I also expected – and got – that part of the story where Travers and Disney go head-to-head, but I didn’t expect their relationship to be as codependent as it was. Travers needs Disney for his money, yet she struggles to release control of her book because of what it means to her and her memory of her father. Disney only wants Travers for her book but thinks he needs her for it. His desire isn’t for monetary gain; Disney will make endless sums of money without Poppins. No, he wants it … needs it … because he made a promise to his daughters he would get it. He kowtows to Travers’ every insufferable whim (of which there are many) because he wants to make his girls happy.
Watching Hanks and Thompson – two masters of their craft – share scenes is a joy, particularly because they play such strong-willed individuals. From Hanks you get Disney as a man who is used to getting everything he wants and one who surely dismisses anyone who doesn’t give him what he wants, and yet he cannot do that here (and Hanks really makes you think Disney will do it any minute now). From Thompson, though, you get something much more complex, and which contributes to that unexpected portion of the film.
Throughout the film, Travers’ childhood tale is told in flashback, and it focuses on her incredibly close relationship with her father, a man far more passionate about playing pretend with her than he was about working at the bank he managed. He was also far more passionate about drinking than he was about working at the bank he managed. What’s so wonderful about many of these flashback scenes is how director John Lee Hancock weaves them throughout the present day narrative, at times making immediate connections between now and then while also setting up something in the present to be explained later in the past.
The problem is that Hancock never knows when the weaving should end. It is routinely heavy-handed and at times intrusive upon the present-day story. In fact, the weaving becomes so pervasive, the film dips its toes into parallel universe waters, with the most egregious example of this happening during the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” number. As the Sherman Brothers perform the number for Travers, it coincides with a flashback of a speech her father gives. The speech’s dialogue starts to line up with the lyrics of the song, leaving me to wonder who exactly should get credit for those lyrics. I get the intent: Travers’ father was a banker, Mr. Banks is a banker, and the song is about banking, but it’s off-the-rails storytelling; Farrell even contributes to the song delivery, making matters worse.
Through it all, good or bad, Thompson is magnificent. Travers is a condescending woman at the start of the film, showing respect to no one, from the stewardess on the plane to Walt Disney himself. But as the days pass, and as her contempt morphs into anxiety and insecurity and sorrow and regret and ultimately anger, Thompson peels back those layers to the perfect degree. Still, by the end, she has a bit of an edge, but she has certainly experienced something life-changing that has brought her comfort, if not a little relief and happiness.
Travers is a daughter. Disney has daughters. Mr. Banks represents Travers’ father. Disney insists that Mr. Banks the father have a mustache (as he, the father-figure, does). Even Ralph and Travers bond over a story he tells her about his daughter. The father/daughter theme isn’t subtle. Then again, neither are Travers and Disney.
This might not be a perfect film, and themes of death and regret and alcoholism and unemployment might send it over the heads of much younger viewers, but if you enjoy any parts covered in this film – Disney, Poppins, Hanks, Thompson, and so on – it is very much worth your time.