Saving Mr Banks is a merciless film. It hits you with every sentimental low blow it can think of. Then it pounds you again. And when you’re down, it jumps on you. It makes shameless use of Emma Thompson weeping for a soggy fifteen minutes, and while you know the trick is remorseless you’ll end up crying, too. Don’t blame yourself: It is permitted to weep at dreadful films, so long as you lament for the exploited audience. This is an unforgivable picture, not least in the jolly, complacent air with which Tom Hanks has been cajoled into being that lovable Walt Disney, everyone’s uncle, a dictator convinced by his own affability and the insistence that his workers should call him “Walt”. I suspect that even those turned to nausea by the film may be prepared to consent to the feeling that at least Emma and Tom are good sports and valiant triers. Have nothing to do with this humbug. They have lent themselves to one of the most flagrant pieces of product placement in modern screen history.
This is what you have to believe: that P.L. Travers at the age of 60+ agrees to go to Hollywood to see whether Walt can persuade her to sell him the film rights to her character, Mary Poppins. She hates cartoons, movies, flying, Los Angeles, fussy hotels, fraudulent bonhomie, and people who call her Pam or Pamela, and she hates herself. She knows well in advance that Disney will make a travesty of her dry, rather stern character and the book’s modest ethos. So why does she go? Because she needs the money, that’s why. Which is entirely reasonable and fair. So many better authors have signed the contracts, run with the money and managed to avoid staying in Los Angeles. She goes so this movie can exist, for in the by and by, the resolute P.L. will soften and yield when Walt works it out that she does not like herself because she believes she betrayed her boring, drunken father in an Australian outback life that would make a saint bored and alcoholic.
The film is a parking lot for dreary Australian flashbacks in which Colin Farrell labors as the Dad. All of which is irrelevant. P.L. may have hated herself—she is an unlikable, ill-mannered prig who happens to be right in every foreboding about Disney. But she was not a lifelong casualty of guilt: She taught at Harvard, lived a good deal in America, studied the Hopi and Navajo, adopted a son (but not his twin), and had love affairs with men and women. In the film, she lives alone in an expensive house in a fashionable part of London, one that could be exchanged for several thousand acres in the outback or a very nice place in Sussex. But against every sensible instinct she goes to Los Angeles. What is not mentioned in all this pious psychologizing is how much money she is getting. I take filmmaking seriously, and if I’m asked to sympathize with authors I want to know their deal.
At LAX she is met by a limo and a chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), and he is as cute, whimsical, tolerant, amiable as Happy. Driving “Mrs.” over the Mulholland ridge from the Beverly Hills Hotel to the Valley, he looks at that fried minestrone landscape and asks his passenger if it isn’t beautiful. Sometimes a critic will say that an actor has phoned in a performance—in this case with Giamatti it’s direct deposit, and I hope he can find forgiveness somewhere.
Then it’s into the collaboration. P.L. has insisted on not playing ball—no songs, no animation—but they all appear. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak do nicely as the Sherman brothers who wrote the songs, and you know those songs by heart even if it amounts to heart disease. Now, the film of Mary Poppins was a huge hit. (A gross of over $100 million in 1964, making it 50 next year—has that occurred to Disney?) It was nominated for thirteen Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it won five, with one going to that “adorable” Julie Andrews. If you are the right age you will not hear a word against the film. Boo! It stinks. Grow up. Mrs Travers should have made a fortune out of it, to say nothing of the extra books sold on the back of the film. But no money is named. Yet suddenly, all of the creator’s sturdy and sane misgivings melt and then she’s dancing with the scriptwriter and wheedling an invite to the premiere. That’s the magic kingdom for you.
Why is it named for Mr. Banks? Well, that is the name of the children’s father in the movie, a role played by David Tomlinson. The wishful thinking of the film is that Banks has redeemed the Colin Farrell father and Mrs. Travers’ chilly persona. I have consulted with people who adored the film as children, and not one of them recollects the saved father as being a vague theme, let alone a present feeling in Mary Poppins. It’s hogwash, just like so many of Walt’s achievements. Did I mention that Saving Mr Banks is actually made by and for the Disney Studio, or that when P.L. is dragged off to Disneyland it is the real place, scared back to its 1962 level, with Walt glad-handing the crowd and distributing signed photographs of himself? You guessed that?
I am very fond of Emma Thompson, and I know her as a consummate, smart, restrained actress. (She was also the daughter of Eric Thompson, who devised a television show for young children, The Magic Roundabout, that was as far from Disney as it could be.) Ms. Thompson has been kidnapped for venture. I suspect she will be nominated, but don’t be deceived. As for Hanks, who is skilful in all he does, he is still wiped out by the film’s conclusion, where photographs of the real Walt are shown. You know that man and that smile, and you may agree that the foxy face and the cold eyes are never softened in photography. More intriguing still, the film closes on some of the sound tapes that recorded the original script conferences. P.L. insisted on those, and we should thank her. If only the entire film could have been made from them. It’s not that they contradict the film, but whereas in Saving she is a defiant, silly obstructionist to the spreading of good cheer and spoons full of sugar, on the tape she comes across as a sensible, fierce manager who was running the show. To add spice to it all, she sounds like Margaret Thatcher.
So try this version of events. P.L. despised Disney and all it stood for. But she needed money, so she determined to keep as tight a grip on the film as possible. She did her best to have her cake and eat it, like most participants in pictures. To her further credit, after the plunder of Mary Poppins, Mrs Travers never let uncle make a sequel. Had she been alive, I suspect she would have shot this awful movie between the eyes.