“I now what he is going to do to her,” an apprehensive Pamela Travers says of Walt Disney early in Saving Mr Banks, a new film telling the story of how the film-maker came to make Mary Poppins. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, is fearful that Disney will turn children’s literature’s most famous nanny into a “cavorting and tinkling” cartoon-like character.
The film, which closed the London Film Festival last night, is effective enough as a weepie. It boasts a fine performance from Thompson, who starts the movie in eccentric groove like a prickly version of Joyce Grenfell’s Miss Gossage, but slowly and subtly reveals her character’s vulnerabilities and complexities.
However, Saving Mr. Banks also feels sanitised and disingenuous. Although the idea was initially developed by BBC Films, this is the Disney version of how Disney made Mary Poppins.
As played by Tom Hanks, Uncle Walt is an avuncular everyman, combining business savvy with a childlike sense of wonder. It’s an absurdly idealised depiction that Disney animators such as Art Babbitt, involved in industrial action against the studio in the 1940s, would certainly struggle to recognise.
Kelly Marcel’s screenplay takes us back into Travers’ troubled childhood, with frequent flashbacks from 1960s LA where the cash-strapped author has reluctantly come to negotiate the movie rights for Mary Poppins, to the dusty Australian outback where she grew up.
As a child, she had a very close relationship with her ne’er-do-well banker father Robert Travers, played by Colin Farrell. Her ambivalent feelings toward him are what inspired her to write Mary Poppins. The nanny, we learn, wasn’t there for the sake of the children but to save their father, Mr Banks, a fictionalised version of her father.
The film-makers extract plenty of comedy from the culture clash between Travers and Disney. Belying her Aussie roots, Travers is an archetypal English woman who dresses in tweed, drinks tea (with the milk put in first, of course) and has an utter abhorrence for the vulgarity of the California lifestyle. There’s a funny scene early on in which she turns at in her LA hotel room to discover it is full of gifts from Disney including a huge Mickey Mouse doll. She is appalled and frantically tries to get rid of the toys, as if they are toxic.
“Mr Disney, Mary Poppins does not sing,” Travers pronounces as songwriting team the Sherman brothers work on “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” et al. Of course, we all know that the Mary Poppins film was indeed made, that Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke do indeed sing their hearts out in it and that there are even (despite Travers’ horror) animated penguins.
This means the dramatic tension isn’t what it could be. Saving Mr. Banks is more a character study than a behind-the-scenes drama. Travers’ character is rich and complex. The problem is that Hanks’s Disney seems like a whitewash.