Whenever Disney aim to release something based on a real life subject alarm bells ring, so notorious is the company’s ability to sugar coat and twist previously established tales to their own means its even earned its own (sort of) word, ‘Disney-fication’.
Well that is just what P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, suspected when she became involved with the company, and that is how I felt going into Saving Mr. Banks.
So, it was with a pinch of salt (or should that be a spoonful of sugar) that I headed into this movie that, ostensibly, tells the tale of the making of, or at least the pre-production, of Disney’s Mary Poppins.
More than that though the film sheds some light on the source material’s author, the aforementioned P.L. Travers, and what led her to create Mary Poppins and quite why she was so famously reluctant to give up the rights to the story to Walt Disney.
While the story is somewhat ‘sugar coated’ with a lot of the emotions appearing to be heightened and, in some moments, manipulated – particularly by the music – there does seem to be a core of truth in there, alongside some genuinely excellent performances, particularly from Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt (never Mr.) Disney.
Thompson really is the film’s highlight as she totally inhabits the character of Travers in an incredibly irascible and forthright manner so, even an actress as well-known as Thompson, becomes lost in the character – until a few scenes nearer the end based around the film premiere where Travers appears very out-of-place.
Hanks as Walt is similarly gone and it is refreshing that a film put out by Disney treats the character as a real human and does let us see some of the man’s faults, including being caught smoking, although ultimately it is a very flattering portrait.
This leaves the impression that somewhere between these versions of Travers and Disney lays 99% of humanity, and suggests that their coming together to create Mary Poppins is what made the film the classic it surely is, as their personalities temper each other through the medium of the film.
The other thing that struck me again goes back to the “Disney-fication” of events as the film opens with a shot of the sky over Hollywood (well Burbank, but close enough) and suggests that, while this is reality, it is the kind of reality that only exists in that small part of Los Angeles hand prints line the sidewalk and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre stands iconic.
This also ties in to the flashback scenes, of which we are given no sense as to how true to life they might be, but they do tie in with the 1961 sequences well. While they occasionally border on being a bit too much ‘show and tell’, they shed a light on the reasons for Travers’ behavior, without which she would soon become almost entirely unsympathetic, and add a slightly darker hue to the story that is much-needed in the otherwise bright LA sun.
In the end, across its 120 or so minutes, Saving Mr. Banks hits all the right marks with laughs, tears and a look at some interesting people I think most of us won’t have seen before, certainly in this light, and almost becomes more than the sum of its parts into being something great, albeit at times well coated in Disney’s trademark sweetness.