Review | Emma Thompson Shines in Self-Congratulatory ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

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It isn’t uncommon for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for its artistic achievements, but in the case of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney must be double-jointed. Retelling – in more ways than one – the story of Walt Disney’s tumultuous relationship with P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, John Lee Hancock’s film tries to psychoanalyze the writer’s reticence to let someone turn her iconic nanny into a movie heroine while celebrating the studio’s hard-won, now-legendary cinematic achievement.

Too obsessed with decoding the origins of Travers’ obstinacy to offer a balanced portrait of the author’s concerns about selling off her beloved character, Saving Mr. Banks avoids becoming hagiography of the most troublesome kind only by boasting one performance just convincing enough to overcome its self-serving “truthiness.”

Oscar winner Emma Thompson plays Travers, a buttoned-up British author who reluctantly agrees to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) so he can make a case for adapting her bestselling novel Mary Poppins. Brusque and intractable, Travers agrees to sell the rights only after she goes over the script with a fine-toothed comb, discarding anything that doesn’t align with what’s in her head, or worse, cheapens the character with cartoonish pandering. But as she delves deeper into the script, Travers soon finds herself recalling the experiences that initially drove her to write the book.

After watching her gregarious father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) succumb to alcoholism , Travers struggled to come to terms with mortality, and the unkeepable promises of adulthood. But even as she begins to yield to Disney’s ideas, she locks into a battle of wills that won’t merely determine the fate of the movie, but unveil the true meaning of the book – both on the page and in her life.

Although Hancock does his best to maintain the pretense of a balanced portrayal of both Disney and Travers – Disney cops to his commercial ambitions with the property – he inevitably stacks the deck against Travers as an inflexible shrew whose buttoned-up demeanor feels positively villainous. Of course, he also pairs that with this missing-link mystery from her childhood that explains why she’s such a jerk to the well-meaning songwriters attempting to add music to the movie, but the convenience, however accurate, of this formative experience undermines the depth and complexity of the real Travers, who was bisexual, and adopted a child when she was in her 40s – 20 or so years before the events in the film.

With the film to fall back on as evidence of Disney’s shrewd creativity, Travers can’t help but be the bad guy, disliking the songs and forbidding the use of animation – you know, all of the stuff that people like about it. But Thompson’s superlative performance almost convinces us of Travers’ nuanced transformation, allowing herself to indulge Disney’s childlike world just enough that she experiences an emotional epiphany without ever truly changing herself. (That said, the film acts as if the process of adapting Mary Poppins freed Travers’ creative juices, but she’d already written four book by the time Disney came along.)

Indeed, Thompson’s performance in the final act is a thing of great power and beauty – a case study in connecting with an audience. Although it’s widely known that Travers hated the final film – forbidding future installments and banning participation from the filmmakers when it went to Broadway – Thompson’s performance of the author’s real-life breakdown during the screening is utterly devastating, although it speaks more to the dimensions of the fictional narrative than any particular clarification of her true feelings.

As undeniably effective as those final moments are, there’s simply no getting around how self-congratulatory the film ends up being, because it positions Travers as a jerk getting in the way of Disney sharing one of its greatest efforts with the world. And moreover, reducing Travers’ objections to symptoms of lifelong trauma – only exorcised with the completion of the film – is an insult to her legacy, even if you consider Mary Poppins a bona fide masterpiece. Ultimately, it’s disingenuous for Disney then or now to position itself as the underdog, which is why Saving Mr. Banks is a resonant but hugely problematic film – a prestigious look at the embattled history of the production written by those who prevailed, while incredulously suggesting that everybody involved won.

Saving Mr. Banks opens today nationwide.

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Comments

  • Alan

    There’s a good BBC documentary on this subject on youtube, called The Secret Life of Mary Poppins.

  • Tommy Rankin

    I’ve never really heard about anything involving this subject and haven”t really payed attention to this film or what it’s about so I admit that I have no idea about this stuff but somehow the indication that this kind of film includes a lot of Disney congratulating itself and patting itself on the back doesn’t surprise me in the least

  • 2dreviews

    I don’t understand this notion of writing off the film because it is not historically accurate. While I appreciate that the film slyly masquerades as a retelling of true events while simultaneously being self-congratulatory, what Disney film ISN’T a man-handled distortion of the truth?

    Disney’s focus is on defining their characters, giving them demons / “work to do” that make them relatable, then having them overcome that conflict to achieve redemption or rejuvenation or rebirth. Relatable characters whose personality and history create conflicts with each other as well as support the main conflict of the film is a very fundamental storytelling element that a lot of films fail to achieve. I think Saving Mr. Banks should be applauded for how it defined its characters, regardless of what they had to invent in order to make it work. After all, aren’t we at the movies to enjoy a good story, rather than admire a clinically accurate, beat-for-beat re-enactment of someone’s life?

    For example, in A Beautiful Mind are we supposed ask, “where is his illegitimate child?” Do we balk at the fact the film thematically champions love, when in real life Nash and his wife divorced for some years? When we see the scene where they lay down the pens on the table (which did not occur in real life) do we say, “Balderdash. This movie tells lies and spins falsehoods. It has merit, but ultimately it deserves to purged with cleansing fire.”

  • Tabularasa

    My issue with this review is that it’s so spent on the historical inaccuracies of this, as if no other “based on a true story” movie has done this. The point was to show the real story of Marry Poppins. And even though Travers hated the movie, most of everyone else loved it and became a childhood favorite. The fimmakers bent the true story for what was best for their film. And it works. If you want 100% the true story, there’s several documentaries. And yes, there’s a lot of Disney patting themselves on the back. Not sure what you would expect. But again, Travers hated it, not a whole lot of people shared her view. So, in the end, it was a triumph for Disney.

  • ErnestRister

    “Although it’s widely known that Travers hated the final film –
    forbidding future installments and banning participation from the
    filmmakers when it went to Broadway –”….

    Not true. Eisner and Katzenberg asked her to write a sequel for them, called “Mary Poppins Returns”. And she agreed. She sat down with Brian Sibley to craft a screen story pitch, spent two weeks on it, sent it over to Katzenberg and Eisner and they passed on it. The “forbidding future installments” is a myth. She worked on one herself.

  • Todd Gilchrist

    While I take issue with its fabrications, what’s really problematic is how the film throws Travers under the bus — it vilifies her outright — so that Disney can congratulate itself for making the film. If you like the film that’s fine and if you’re unbothered by its inaccuracies that’s fine too, but I object to the idea that she was a jerk for wanting to protect her creation and Disney was a hero for bringing it to the masses.

  • Tabularasa

    Except this isn’t really true. Disney is not the protagonist in this story. Walt goes through no emotional character arc. She does. Walt is her emotional push that allows her to open up about her past. She is the protagonist of this story. Everything about her being being the way she was is actually true. Check out the credits where she has the taped recordings of their meetings. She was like this and Emma actually played her to a lesser extent than the real Travers was. In no way did this film portray her as a villain. They portrayed her as a very protective person of her work for a very important reason that was shown in the film.