No Singing, No Dancing, No Silly Cartoons

Walt Disney’s magic touch on celluloid created indelible memories for many moviegoers, but it induced tears of rage in P.L. Travers (born Helen Goff) at the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. At least that’s what she said.

Saving Mr. Banks, released in 2014 and available at the Whitehorse Public Library, revolves around the making of Mary Poppins and the tussle over the film interpretation between Walt (Tom Hanks) and Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson), who wrote the Mary Poppins series of children’s novels.

She wields a script approval clause for her iconic books, and that’s how she ends up in Hollywood in one of Disney’s writing cottages, working with writer Don daGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), to adapt the books into a musical.

Disney’s merry creative team is saddled with a fractious and very British collaborator, who finds fault with everything in Disney’s America from the air she breathes to the Mickey Mouse face that is shaped in Jell-O cubes and served in the writers’ room. But an unhappiness deeper than petulance is triggered in Mrs. Travers when she realizes that the character of Mr. Banks is painted in a negative light.

Her unease is explained in flashbacks that form a film inside the film, showing her childhood in Edwardian Australia. The pastoral settings and attention to period detail in the fl ashback sequences are the trademark of a Disney family production, but underneath the nostalgic gloss is a family in deep distress.

Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) is a practically perfect father to little Helen (Annie Rose Buckley), nurturing her creativity with games and fairy stories. He’s less suited for the banking profession and loses his job, forcing him to move his family into isolated areas where he can fi nd work. Their position grows ever more precarious with his fragile wife Margaret (Ruth Wilson) bending under the pressure, until salvation arrives in the form of Margaret’s stern sister Ellie (Rachel Griffiths).

Perhaps the fictional resolution for Mr. Banks that the team comes up with helps Helen reclaim the memory of her adored father; Saving Mr. Banks suggests that a relationship between art and psychic pain is something Walt Disney understands. “We storytellers… restore order with imagination. We instil hope again and again,” he says to Mrs. Travers.

Does it mollify P.L. Travers? Hardly. Saving Mr. Banks and Emma Thompson are unfl inching in the portrayal of this disagreeable person, who has a scant handful of personable qualities. The screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith draws in part on a memoir by Robert B. Sherman, whose unease with Mrs. Travers apparently didn’t mellow with time. Walt Disney gets more benevolent treatment, rendered by Hanks as an intriguing mixture of creative visionary and master manipulator.

The anti-hero and the melancholy tale at the center don’t prevent director John Lee Hancock from finding an element of fun for Saving Mr. Banks, without making fun of the characters. Enticing allusions to Mary Poppins are sprinkled throughout, including a ride on the carousel and a surreal scene with Travers Goff at a county fair. 

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