Songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman and scriptwriter Don DaGradi needed more than a spoonful of sugar to make the bitter medicine of working alongside British author Pamela Travers on the film adaptation of “Mary Poppins” go down. Travers, who hated to be called by her first name, feared that Walt Disney would “Disneyfy” her original novels. So, before selling him the rights to her work, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles for a series of script conferences with Disney’s creative team. She has final approval over every word, every song, and every punctuation mark in the script. Oh, yes, one more thing: there will absolutely be no animation. And we all know how that turned out.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is the slightly fictionalized account of this creative clash between these two titans. It also pretends to explain the reasons for Travers’ over-protectiveness by exploring her Australian childhood in the early part of the 20th Century. The film cuts back and forth between the present and the past, as each conflictive script conference leads Travers (played by Emma Thompson) down memory lane. The schematic structure blatantly implies that Travers’ childhood influenced her literary work. And yet, it works by allowing audiences to connect the dots (although, as Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir points out in his review of “Saving Mr. Banks,” Travers’ adult life was far more complicated than what we see on screen).
As a young girl, Travers (real name Helen Groff, played by Annie Rose Buckley) enjoyed a magical kinship with her Irish father (Colin Farrell), a banker whose head was always in the clouds and whose drinking problems forced him and his family to move from town to town as he lost one job after another, ending in the Australian outback. His stories transported Travers to another world, but reality soon reared its ugly head as her father sank deeper into alcoholism.
The present day Travers is an angry, bitter and arrogant woman. Disney (Tom Hanks) has been chasing after the rights of her novels for 15 years. Now, with her royalty checks rapidly dwindling and about to lose her comfy home, she has no choice but to fly out to Los Angeles to at least listen to what Disney’s creative team has in mind. These skirmishes between British propriety and American gumption, between an author protecting her literary child and a visionary who wants to introduce that work to a new audience under his own terms are the beating heart of the film.
While Disney is portrayed as the fatherly figure from those “Wonderful World of Disney” TV episodes most of us grew up watching way back when (this is, after all, a Disney Studios production), Hanks and the film’s scriptwriters and director —Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith and John Lee Hancock, respectively— splendidly portray the man’s creative drive and how it trickled down to his team. This is a man who would take no for an answer and would persuasively explain why while taking you for a ride on a merry-go-round.
The movie, though, belongs to Emma Thompson. Thompson turns an unsympathetic character into a complex one. She understands Travers perfectly: her devotion and over protectiveness to her creation, her refusal to concede to the lowest common denominator, and her own personal struggles. That hidden underneath that hard, tetchy exterior lies a delicate, sorrowful soul.
“Saving Mr. Banks” earns every laugh and every tear. It manipulates your emotions in the way classic Hollywood films once did. But it also pays tribute to the creative minds behind a classic musical, one worth revisiting over and over again.