A Spoonful of Sugar: Saving Mr. Banks

First things first: Saving Mr. Banks is not a biopic about Walt Disney and it is therefore unfair to judge it as one. In not discussing Walt Disney the anti-Semitic maniacal workaholic, but rather Uncle Walt as he appeared to millions on television, some have decided that must mean that this film, a Disney film, is whitewashing history.

That may very well be true. And the director John Lee Hancock has had a bit of experience in this field, being the writer/director of the Sandra Bullock starrer The Blind Side.

But to take that opinion is also to miss the point of the film. And that’s a shame, really, because although Saving Mr. Banks is sluggish and meandering, is still a good piece of entertainment that is in no way shape or form meant to be a story about Walt Disney—he is simply a very famous supporting character—but rather a simple story about a girl and her father. The film makes no attempt to be great; for all its Disney sheen, it remains stubbornly simplistic and earthy.

It is 1961 and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the irascible and brilliant author of the Mary Poppins children’s books is being eagerly courted by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) who has been trying to get the film rights for nearly 20 years. The feisty curmudgeon has no interest whatsoever in selling her cherished property to become one of Disney’s “silly cartoons,” but needing the money in order to keep her London home, she at last agrees to fly to Los Angeles to meet with Disney and see first-hand what he has in mind. Travers is immediately disgusted by the perpetual perfection of the Southern California climate and nauseated by the entire Disney operation with it’s smiling saccharinity. The entire deal is, quite clearly, a lost cause to her and she makes the creative bargaining as difficult as possible. The most inconsequential of details to Disney and his writers is of infinite importance to Travers, who insists on their creative meetings being audio recorded and weighs in with authoritarian possessiveness on each and every decision.

She is, after all, a profoundly creative person pitted against another profoundly creative person–Walt Disney.

Watching them butt heads is a delight, and it is obvious that Thompson and Hanks are having a grand time hamming it up. Jason Schwarzman, a gifted musician in his own right, is a natural as Richard Sherman, the words and music man who gave Mary Poppins its unforgettable voice–Schwartzman is having a ball as he pounds out the music that would become among the most beloved in musical history. Paul Giamatti, excellent as always, is a surprising presence as a Disney company chauffeur (he wears his Mickey pin on his lapel with pride) who becomes the emotional bridge between Travers and the strange world she has found herself in. (I ship their relationship, by the way. Like, seriously ship it.)

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 But what makes Banks work is that, for all its hammy, soppy (insert adverb of choice)-ness, the film is, at its heart, not about the Disney machine (even though it is a product of that oft-maligned monstrous behemoth). Told through flashbacks–an admittedly lazy storytelling device but a necessary one nonetheless–we come to understand why Travers is so maniacal about maintaining the emotional integrity of her work: Travers, as a little girl in rural Australia, adored her doting father. Colin Farrell’s portrait of the man is, in this writer’s opinion, the strongest thing in the film. Imaginative, whimsical, and larger than life, he is everything that a bright-eyed little girl loves in her daddy. Which is to say, her flashbacks are purposefully stylised–she romanticizes her childhood memories, just as we all do. Her daddy is her hero. He is also, in reality, an alcoholic n’er-do-well, who tries on multiple occasions, unsuccessfully, to make a serious career as a banker to satisfy his wife.

Before his premature death the little Travers’ stern Aunt–every inch the Mary Poppins from the children’s books with her hat, umbrella and carpetbag of tricks–arrives to try and help nurse the father during his final days. There is a moment, following her father’s death, in which the little girl is standing over her father’s lifeless body. The Aunt looms above her in the background. Without turning to face her Aunt, the little girl says, cuttingly, “You said you’d fix everything.”

This emotional rupture in her life left such a deep chasm that, as is often the case, sprung from it an endearing, and enduring, work of art. What her Aunt could not fix in real life, Travers would see fixed through fiction.

This is also why Travers is so averse to this deeply personal book getting the Disney Treatment. These characters are not cartoons. And the initial representation of the father, Mr. Banks, is as a cold, unemotional tyrant. It becomes clear no one at Disney has grasped what the story is about. Of course, as anyone who has read the book or seen the film knows, it isn’t the children that need the fixing–it’s the father. They have also conveniently kept from her the fact that live-action is to be coupled with animation for a few of the musical numbers–something explicitly against Travers rules. Walt knows he’s on to something special, and tries to keep Travers ignorant of the plans; when she finds out, she storms out on Disney and the deal.

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Knowing he’s made a grave misjudgement, and in true Disney form (that is, unwilling to consider defeat) Disney follows Travers to London. Ever the agenda-driven mogul, he promises Travers that Mr. Banks–her father–will in the end be the warm, loving man she remembered. He promises to save Mr. Banks, and preserve his memory in the hearts of children forever. And he follows through on his promise, by redeeming the stoic Mr. Banks (immortalized by Tommy Davildson) with the simple act of flying a kite with his children Jane and Michael.

We do not get inside Disney’s brain–again this film is not about him–it is Travers’ brain we are trying to unravel. Hers is a difficult, complicated mind, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the final moments of the film when Travers, attending the premiere of the film (she was not invited but showed up anyway) bursts into tears. These are not tears of joy, as some critics have mistakenly supposed, since it is well recorded fact that Travers was not a fan of the film. Rather it appears to be a cathartic moment: the emotional trauma suppressed for so long is finally unleashed right there in the blackness of a movie theater.

Banks is the sort of film that Disney no longer makes and it is therefore fittingly about the creation of the sort of film that Disney no longer makes. Sure, Disney owns plenty of companies that produce great product,  but as an entity unto its own, the days of Mary Poppins are long gone. Far from a great film, it is still a good film that accomplishes its purpose with Poppins-like exactness.

Call the film sexist, masochisist, or any other “ist” that is the popular “ist” at the time of this reading. But once the awards season bandwagoners have disembarked, Saving Mr. Banks will hopefully be seen for what it is: a simple–albeit sugary–movie about a little girl and her daddy.

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