This behind-the-scenes story sees Tom Hanks portray Walt Disney as he desperately tries to secure the rights to produce one of the Disney’s most iconic films, Mary Poppins. The dramatic back and forth between Disney and the author of the series of Poppins books, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in the early 60s plays out as a consistently funny, and ultimately moving reflection on the relationship between creators and their creations.
Despite the fact that Saving Mr. Banks is made by Disney, and that elements are inevitably toned down for the audience or omitted (Walt’s infamous cigarette habit which led to his death from lung cancer is alluded to with a persistent cough but never a wisp of smoke), the on-screen Walt is surprisingly human – he’s an old-fashioned schmoozer, who is well used to getting people to do what he wants. And with Mary Poppins it’s personal, he not only realises the commercial potential of the project, but making the film would also fulfil a promise he made to his daughter over a decade earlier.
But what he wants is not at all what P.L. Travers wants. After years of pursuit, Disney has finally gotten her to come to Hollywood to meet face to face. It is Thompson’s wonderful portrayal of Travers’ culture shock that provides most of the laughs. Mrs. Travers (never Pamela) is an excessively proper, milk-first type of lady with an acerbic streak that strips the veneers from the legion of incessant smiles she encounters in LA. She’s appalled by the changes that the Disney team suggest, her Mary Poppins is older, not at all coy, and she would never associate with a chimney sweep. Every line of dialogue, costume, set, and prop that Disney suggests is meticulously scrutinized by Travers, and that’s before the songs and animated penguins are even mentioned.
Regular flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia reveal some of the rationale behind her possessiveness of the Mary Poppins story. Like Mr. Banks, Travers’ father (Colin Farrell) was a bank manager who struggled for a sense of happiness and meaning in life. Dependent on alcohol, Travers’ father is a mischievous and, in the young girls eyes, an almost magical figure that she is forced to watch degenerate. It becomes clear that the character of Mr. Banks is central to both Travers and Disney – Travers sees him as the father that she could save in a fantastical alternative to her own troubled childhood. Disney sees himself in Mr. Banks, and ultimately hopes that Mr.Bank’s on-screen redemption will fulfil a promise to his daughter and mirror a similar sense of redemption in his own life. For both Travers and Disney the relationship between the author and the character is inextricably linked the relationship between the parent and the child.
Saving Mr. Banks carries the hallmarks of a Disney story, but it does so in a nuanced and self-reflective way thanks to superb writing and acting that carries it through over two hours and will undoubtedly see it receive a lot of Oscar attention.