A few weeks ago I showed Mary Poppins to my After School Film Club. Thankfully, 50 years on, its magic still puts 8 year olds blissfully on their feet. In Disney’s attempt to celebrate the best of itself, Saving Mr Banks seems like it’s passed through far too many hands and demonstrates some of the studio’s lousiest and most saccharine impulses. It’s a strange film because it can be rather charming and funny in parts but it feels like two different movies: one which sort of worked, one which fails completely. The story of how P. L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) reluctantly agreed to sell the rights to her beloved children’s books to Hollywood’s great corporate giant is told in parallel with some painfully clumsy flashbacks, showing Mrs Travers growing up as a child in Australia, dealing with her daddy issues. Everything about the flashbacks are poorly executed and edited senselessly with the main narrative. It’s boring and detracts from the story, which certainly has its moments of spark as Emma Thompson doesn’t hold back as the frumpy British author repelled by crude American manners. While Travers needs the money, she’s very keen to make life as difficult as possible for her suitors, making up all sorts of outrageously stringent demands. No animation, no red, no Dick – to name a few.
A significant portion of the film takes place in the rehearsal room, where Travers oversees the work of the writers and composers, initially unconvinced by the famous melodies created before our ears. All this stuff has real magic and made me yearn for less drama and more showtunes, a feeling I can’t recall possessing very often. There is real charm and wit to be sought in this room, much to the credit of Thompson and the amiable trio of Disney writers played by Bradley Whitford, BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman, which makes it so disappointing that it couldn’t be transferred to the rest of the movie. Tom Hanks plays a Walt Disney whose face hardly looks real under layers of makeup. Hanks makes a big speech at the end of the movie which is supposed to bring everything past and present together in a nice, neat bow but its overlong pontification epitomises the film’s struggle to follow a thread. In his first meeting with Travers, the author requests ‘just a spoonful of sugar’ in her tea, a line which would have been cheesy but (arguably) forgivable if Disney scribbled it down in a moment of inspiration and passed it on to his composer, but instead when we see the famous chorus written it’s on a complete non sequitur.
At one point Disney mentions that he was once approached to sell Mickey Mouse when he was younger and I couldn’t help but feel this would have formed the more interesting flashback, as a comparison between how both creatives tried to cling on to their beloved intellectual property in the face of a stack of dollars. When you spend most of the movie thinking how you could have done it so much better yourself, some vital creative spark has gone astray.
There is a rather nice relationship between Travers and her driver (played by the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti) who she calls ‘the only American I’ve ever liked’, not that she’ll tell him why. It’s scenes like these which makes it even more frustrating that so often it falls so short of doing the great Mary Poppins any sort of justice. There’s a real chance Saving Mr Banks will occasionally get you tapping your feet and smiling, but only if you’ve stayed awake through the main part.
Review by David Rank
Saving Mr Banks is out on 29th November in the UK and 20th December in the US. Running time 125 mins. Certificate PG (UK).