Sweetening the brew
This delightful movie almost makes you overlook the liberties it takes with the truth.
A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and in the case of Saving Mr. Banks, a heaping spoonful of Disneyfication certainly helps a difficult real-life story go down much easier.
Telling the tale of how the beloved Disney movie Mary Poppins made it to the silver screen, Saving Mr. Banks revolves around Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) and her volatile relationship with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) as he tries to convince her to let his studio adapt her book into a film.
Given that this is a Disney production, you’d fully expect that they’d smoothen the events’ rough edges as much as they can – and so Walt here is less a bulldozing studio head than he is a lovable, fatherly visionary, and Travers’ dislike for much of the movie is cheerfully portrayed as a begrudging tolerance. Not to mention the fact that, in real life, most of Travers’ thoughts on the movie were simply ignored by Walt and his studio. And yet, here’s the thing: Saving Mr. Bank is a wonderfully-made movie, so much so that you often forget (or want to forget) its rewriting of history.
Beautifully shot to capture Hollywood in the 1960s, it is a movie that will appeal to any Disney fan, as we are taken step-by-step through the journey of a classic being made. And yet, perfectly balanced between humour and drama, the movie doesn’t only feel like a great homage, but also simply an affecting, human story.
Aided by a strong script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and deft direction by John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks hits all the right emotional notes: leaving us with big smiles as we hear strains of Chim Chim Cher-ee, misty-eyed as we understand why Mary Poppins is so important to Travers or giggling at Travers’ reaction to the animated penguins in the film.
As you may have guessed from its title, the film is about fathers, in all their complexities, and the relationships their children have with them (Mr Banks is the father in Mary Poppins).
The movie shifts back and forth from 1960s Los Angeles to the early 1900s in Australia, where we are shown Travers’ childhood and particularly, her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell). It is from Goff, the movie suggests, that Travers inherited her rich imagination and her flights of fancy.
And yet, for all his adoration of his children, Goff was a troubled man, and the movie doesn’t shy away from portraying the damage this inflicted on young Travers, and cleverly draws parallels between her childhood baggage and her book.
There are other fathers in the movie, too, each presenting a different, and sometimes difficult facet of the role: Walt himself, tirelessly dedicated to adapting Mary Poppins into a movie because of a promise he made his daughters; his relationship with his own father, which is how (in the movie, at least) he finally gets through to Travers; and, in a small but unforgettable role, Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver Ralph, whose sunny outlook on life masks constant worries about his daughter.
Saving Mr. Banks’ biggest strength is its cast, who all turn in excellent performances. Thompson finds the heart within her difficult character to make us empathise with her, and anyone who grew up watching Walt Disney on television will be delighted by Hanks’ spot-on portrayal of him. Farrell, too, does a heartbreakingly good job playing Goff, a good man who allows his demons to conquer him.
Meanwhile, the portrayal of real-life characters like songwriting duo Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) add a lot of enjoyment to the proceedings.
So for all its embellishments – and there certainly are plenty – Saving Mr. Banks manages to still feel genuine, and tell a story that is likely to ring true with more than a few of us. After all, how many of us would rather a bitter pill than a spoonful of sugar?