Film Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Fetchingly produced, highly diverting inside look at the making of 'Mary Poppins' that nonetheless suffers from paucity in the script department.

As sunny and blithe as is the film Mary Poppins, one of the Disney Studio's greatest triumphs, the making of it was anything but. Walt Disney had dickered unsuccessfully for decades with the book's author, P.L. Travers, for the movie rights, and the author, famously contrarian, obstinately refused him. A lesser man would have given up, but Mickey Mouse's creator was no mere mortal. This obsessed visionary kept after Travers until she granted him the reluctant concession of journeying to Los Angeles in 1961 to meet with him and see what he had planned, never at any point promising him a yes.

This is the basic story of Saving Mr. Banks, and if the title is confusing, it refers to the character of the father in the book, a workaholic with no time for his two children who, with the forceful input of their magical new governess, Mary Poppins, finally sees the light. "She and this family are very important to me!" cries Travers (Emma Thompson) to these Hollywood interlopers, and indeed they are, for she drew heavily from her own life. The film shifts back and forth in time between California and Travers' impecunious Australian childhood. Things were rough primarily because her bank-employee father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), although a silver-tongued charmer, was a hopeless alcoholic and incapable of holding a job. Nevertheless, young Helen (for such was Travers' actual name) adored him for the sense of magical whimsy he instilled in her and was forever haunted by his early death.

Director John Lee Hancock, working from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, paints a portrait of Travers as an unhappy yet somehow irresistibly engaging result of that childhood trauma. She's ferociously guarded, controlling, stubborn and rude, with her literary eminence giving her an entitlement that borders on sheer megalomania. She's insufferably appalling to everyone, from her literary agent trying to cut that Disney deal to keep this writer solvent despite her lack of output, to the attendants on her Los Angeles flight from London, to the initially chipper composers hired for the film, the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), to even old Walt himself.

You can sense the sheer glee with which the filmmakers set about recreating the factory behind Disney’s fabled Magic Kingdom, and the period details are charming and often lusciously enticing. The screenplay milks a lot of humor from Travers' legendary negativity when it came to the concept of the film as a musical, the use of any animation, the set designs and costumes, and pretty much everything which had been so painstakingly ordered. (You see a Sherman brother surreptitiously hiding the music to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" when she rails against made-up words in the script.) The Australian scenes have a vivid pastoral beauty, and the film as a whole is pleasant enough, yet one wishes there were somehow more to it.

Not much really happens in the flashbacks, apart from Daddy getting repeatedly drunk and disgracing himself while little Helen (the gravely pretty Annie Rose Buckley) makes like Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, hopelessly in love with this sodden loser. And although the scenes with Travers battling it out in the studio with Disney and the Shermans are highly entertaining, it would have been nice to see more of what went into her writing and what happened after her childhood leading up to her success with Mary Poppins. And for all the detail that went into the Hollywood scenes, we never do find out what Travers thought of Julie Andrews (a pretty crucial casting decision, one would have thought). The thinness of the script—which also suffers from a few careless anachronisms like having Disney spout New Age aphorisms while trying to get Travers to sign on that dotted line or her citing Frida Kahlo as if she was a legend, which she most certainly was not in 1961—keeps the film from being something less than the classic its careful, prideful mounting would wish it to be.

It does, however, give Thompson her strongest outing in years. Having honed her nanny-ness in the Nanny McPhee series, there's probably no actress more equipped to take this on and she's a delightfully persnickety curmudgeon, barking imprecations like "Mary Poppins is the enemy of whimsy!" and, referring to the script she disdains, "Where is the gravitas?" At her most primly imperious, her voice and demeanor evoke none other than Julie Andrews herself, and that is, as another, far lesser household icon is wont to say, a good thing. It's a credit to Thompson that she avoids making Travers' transformation from complete recalcitrance to a very tear-stained acceptance of the finished project at its Grauman's Chinese Theatre premiere, completely un-bathetic and believable (and for the susceptible in the audience, those tears may be highly contagious).

Farrell is also better used than he's been in a while, bringing a mad romantic dash to his character which, in its tortured, booze-stained sensitivity, recalls the equally doomed yet mesmerizing James Mason in A Star Is Born. Farrell has just enough twinkling charisma and deep glamour to convince you of the unshakable hold he would have over a lifelong, if highly unlikely, daddy's girl. The filmmakers were also wise to cast another actor to whom charm is no stranger, for, in a few scenes, Paul Giamatti is highly ingratiating and even touching as Travers' unquenchably upbeat, if clueless, driver whose handicapped child has also fallen in love with her book.

Tom Hanks' charm, by this time, is a bit on the patented side, but he brings an apt folksy authority to Disney, although his voice has none of the richly congenial John Huston-esque tones familiar to a generation of now-gray-haired kids who watched him every Sunday night on TV. He's an imperturbably strong foil for Travers' outrages, but I do wish—probably hopelessly, given its studio—that the film had sketched his character with a few more complexities, familiar to anyone who has ever dipped into a bio of him. (A recent New York play, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, was eye-opening, to say the least, not to mention frightening.) Poor Kathy Baker is here completely wasted as his secretary, while Rachel Griffiths has almost as little to do as the supposedly inspirational aunt who arrived with a carpetbag and brought something resembling order for a while to the Goff family.