Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – A Review

Saving Mr. Banks 2013 Tom Hanks Emma Thompson
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

It’s 1961 and after twenty years of annual requests to an author asking to let him adapt her most famous and beloved book into a movie a studio mogul has finally begun to wear her down. Still not being thrilled with the idea, but now needing money, the author is finally willing to listen to his proposal.

A ten-day visit to California, a fun tour of his studio and accompanying theme park and being granted complete creative control with all the decisions involving making this movie should do the trick to melt away this icy authors skepticism down and make her ‘ok’ all the ideas the writers and songwriters have for her character.

However, they will soon realize that no matter what enticements are thrown in her face, this author will not bend with how she views her work and will not allow anyone – even the most famous filmmaker in history – to sully this character and story that holds a special place in her heart. And so begins the collaboration between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers in bringing her creation Mary Poppins to movie screens all over the world.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks
Walt Disney and the Sherman brothers

I like so many other movie fans like Mary Poppins and I had heard of the stories of Travers being so reluctant at letting Disney get his hands on it. So I thought a film telling this story could be an interesting exploration of an artist trying to protect her creation, the over-the-top, two-faced schmoozing that Hollywood does, the agreements and concessions each party had to make and the overall process behind making this classic film that everyone loved – except Travers. This is not that movie.

As the trailers for the movie show Travers (Emma Thompson) is flown to Disney studios where Uncle Walt (Tom Hanks) tries to placate her every wish. He is fixated on filming Mary Poppins since promising his daughters those twenty years earlier he would make the movie for them. He’s willing to give Travers an unheard of amount of power with this collaboration. She’s allowed to put the kibosh on anything she doesn’t like about Disney’s idea of a Mary Poppins movie. To everyones surprise she systematically shoots down every idea, creative decision and song that Disney’s team presents her.

Intercut with her 1961 visit at Disney are flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia which reveals why this nanny character means so much to her and details her own relationship with her father who was the inspiration for Mr. Banks – the equally important character in the Mary Poppins story.

It isn’t until Disney discovers Travers personal history that he understands the deeper meaning behind why she holds these characters so dear. Making a last heartfelt desperate plea she ultimately trusts him that he will treat her work with care and signs the rights over to Walt.

Tom Hanks Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
Walt Disney sweet talking P.L. Travers

This is not surprisingly a very whitewashed telling of the story that leaves out much of the drama, tension and bad blood that was left in the fallout of this partnership.

I say it shouldn’t be surprising because Disney Pictures made it, so why would they want to present their main man as anything but a magical honest, good-natured, nobleman who was able to accomplish the impossible and had the best intentions for everyone involved. We’ll have to end the story there.

Oh Disney Pictures couldn’t possibly let the film fade out on anything but a happy ending, even if it is manufactured and they had to rewrite history to do it.

It’s not just a sugar-coated film, but a saccharine-covered one. Director John Lee Hancock creates a very safe movie that tries to press all the emotional buttons with heart tugging music, some humor and moments of revelation that are meant to wipe away the turmoil with ease, until literally our main character is entranced by the wonderful world of Disney.

The journey we’re taken on in the film learning about Travers background and Disney’s gradual understanding of why she felt so passionate and protective of her work is pretty much fictionalized when weighed against the reality of the true story, since she didn’t actually like what he did with Mary Poppins in the end anyway. I guess he didn’t understand it or Travers. So I don’t really understand what story the filmmakers want to tell here. I suppose just the Disney-fied version of events.

I understand some creative liberties have to be taken in adapting a ‘true story’. Various real people will be combined into one sole character, timelines will change for dramatic purposes, scenes will simply be designed to move the story along. I didn’t start watching this and expect a documentary, but the artistic liberties taken in Saving Mr. Banks felt like it weakened and dulled this story.

Saving Mr. Banks 2013 docudrama

The changes didn’t make a more engaging story or more interesting characters. Come on, Disney might have been a nice guy, but he couldn’t have been the immaculate prince they present here. Travers might have been an inflexible pain, but perhaps she had very good reasons to be apprehensive of Disney’s requests.

It would have been refreshing had they made this more of an equal duel between these two characters and simply not just Disney with a twinkle in his eye helping Travers get over her Daddy issues and Travers relieved at the final film. Whew!

The film is structured in a way to make us learn more about Travers’ childhood via flashbacks. As she shoots down every ‘Mary Poppins’ idea we all know and love and she comes off as a stuffy old maid, she reminisces about her family and father (played by Colin Farrell). Travers’ father is the ‘Rosebud’ in her past. He’s a likable tragic figure who died when she was seven and was the inspiration for Mr. Banks who is the real person Mary Poppins comes to save.

Travers’ childhood

The flashbacks flesh out our understanding of why Travers is so protective of Mary Poppins, but they started to feel repetitive and disruptive at times. I was surprised how much of the film consists of them. I would guess around 40%. Plus, many of them don’t feel very natural in their placement in the movie. They suddenly just appear most of the time and felt jarring.

The best and most emotional one I felt was Travers remembering her father drunk giving a speech as the Sherman’s play the famous bank song and the music begins to weave itself into her memory of her father.  But a lot of the flashbacks felt unnecessary and could have been streamlined a bit more.

There are some good things in here, notably Thompson who is very fun to watch as she ultra-seriously criticizes and sniffs at every uplifting little thing Disney and his guys show her and the disdain she has for California. The supporting cast are all very good and Hanks is…well Tom Hanks. He’s likable, but this isn’t a very impressive performance or character he’s given to play. This is really Thompson’s show and she’s the main attraction and the best thing in here.

Even viewing Saving Mr. Banks as not so much a ‘making of Mary Poppins movie’, but rather an exploration of Travers past and influences it still doesn’t leave much of an impression. Especially when I consider the movie isn’t very accurate to the events and strategically leaves out much about her, including the way she ultimately felt with the final Disney Mary Poppins product. There’s a reason why we never got a Mary Poppins 2. We don’t even get an epilogue about that. So it’s a rather selective look at her.

I can’t help but think how the real ending of this would have left a much more indelible impact had they stuck with it. After all the bickering, arguing and compromises that preceded that movie premiere Travers devastated breaks down in tears watching the film, afterwards she goes up to Disney and simply tells him, “you still don’t understand”.

We might not have understood what she means, but it certainly would have been more interesting and keeping closer to how Travers felt about her whole Disney experience, rather than this movie version of her feeling much better after a magical session of therapy from Walt.

I find it ironic that a film telling the story of the making of a movie where the creator is fighting to stay true to her original material and doesn’t want to see it become sanitized in the big Hollywood machine, is actually what this story has become here. I envision Uncle Walt loving this movie and Travers again sitting at the premiere with tears streaming down her face at this – and not happy tears.

It’s too bad Walt Disney Pictures had to tell this story and they didn’t let someone else film it who would have brought more of an impartial perspective to the whole thing.


You may also like...

9 Responses

  1. Capt. Nemo says:

    I'll pass.

    If they make the prequel, where Walt is making "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and how it almost bankrupted him, I'll be there.

    How does this compare to the movie about Hitchcock making "Psycho?"

  2. Dan O. says:

    The movie snuck up on me and by the end, had me tearing-up quite heavily. Good review.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I went to the theater with similar expectations, that it was all about the process. I didn't need or want the flashbacks. I wanted a lighthearted whimsical movie and only got 60% of one. It was okay but not all that I hoped for.

  4. John Jamele says:

    Walt Disney was a Joe McCarthy-supporting paranoid who saw Reds behind every curtain and had no problem with the destruction of lives and careers in pursuit of ideological purity. His company snatched up beloved, often ancient, fairy tales, bleached them, stamped them with a trademark and went after (and continues to go after) anyone who dares suggest they are not the sole property of Disney, INC. Disney himself was a lech with a constant eye for women (no, GIRLS) much, much younger than he was….no, not a nice man. Not a nice man at ALL.

  5. spaceodds says:

    Probably for the first time ever I'm going to disagree with you because…. I HATE MARY POPPINS!!!
    Didn't like it when I was a kid, can't stand it when my niece and nephew watch religiously every Christmas.

    I haven't seen Saving Mr. Banks, wanted to see it due to Emma Thompson's performance, but wasn't going to spend money on a theater ticket. Thanks to your review, I'm going to give it a miss also. I'm not surprised to hear that the film is saccharine and portrays Walt Disney as a nice guy. Like John Jamele mentioned in his post, Disney was a McCarthy/Nazi sympathizer who had a lecherous eye for young girls. Although his work should be a separate issue entirely, Saving Mr. Banks is, lack of a better word, a semi bio-epic, and its misleading that the dark life of Disney wasn't mentioned in the film. But since this is a Disney film, then its no surprise this was skipped.

  6. Okay, here is a response you might not be expecting. I actually liked the movie despite all its problems, and yes there are many problems, the least of which is the revisionist history being put on screen. The thing that always struck me about PL Travers being so highly protective of her creation (and being a real stuck-up bitch in the process) is that she was completely unaware of film as a medium and, consequently, the rules of adaptation. MARY POPPINS is one of my absolute favorite movies, in fact I would put it in a short list of 20 or so that are on my all-time best list. The songs, the performances (yes, Van Dyke's accent is jarringly inaccurate but he makes up for it with his secondary role as the elder Mr. Dawes if you ask me), the way it makes you feel…its just a practically perfect movie all around (forgive the obvious inspiration there).

    The interesting thing about SAVING MR. BANKS is that even though it was presented by Disney, it was actually a British production, a collaboration between the BBC & Disney, while also receiving significant support from Australia, where all the flashback scenes were originally supposed to be filmed. If you want to be cynical, you could watch the movie as an ode to the Disney legacy itself (even the trip to Disneyland came off like a commercial during intermission), though I seriously thought Disney was the antagonist here and I'm glad they told the movie entirely from Traver's point-of-view, however inaccurate it got. The scene where she realized they were going to use the animated penguins was actually the very first time I began to sympathize with her as a character…not to mention the fact it does show, however subtly, a dark side to Walt Disney with the cigarette smoking and dishonesty; thus, I do disagree that they depicted him as an "immaculate prince."

    Yes, when the film arrives at its climactic premiere, I did feel the saccharine and the fact-twisting was too much to consume at that point…but the performances by Hanks and especially Thompson go a long way in forgiving many of the film's historical shortcomings. I also loved the re-enactments of the Sherman songs and in particular Thomas Newman's score; I'm actually happy the Academy Awards virtually ignored the movie save for Newman who, after being nominated 10 times, is long overdue for an Oscar.

    We will never understand Travers in all her prickly actions and decisions. The flashbacks are awkward and used far too often, even if they were injected for us to understand what Travers was dealing with emotionally throughout the process. And, to be fair to Disney, he probably never understood either. What's true is that this unlikely and unusual creative marriage spawned an everlasting masterpiece, and SAVING MR, BANKS I felt was simply a tribute to that marriage, even if it wasn't entirely accurate. The ending is what bothered me the most for the same reasons you mentioned, and if only they went the full distance and showcased Travers' ultimate disdain for the entire enterprise (and gave us a rock-solid theory as to why she felt that way), it would have balanced out the revisionist approach. I still liked the movie and will be rooting for Thomas Newman, but I don't think I shall see it again….MARY POPPINS is all I need. 🙂

    • Thomas and Hanks are both good, but I just wish there was more of balanced depiction between the two and their motivations in the story. Like Disney wants to make Mary Poppins because of a promise he made to his daughters. Did his daughters ever see Mary Poppins? That’s just dropped at some point and never followed through to signal Disney’s personal accomplishment with making the movie. They didn’t have to necessarily make him a villain, but some more shading would have been nice. I had heard Hanks fought to have his Disney smoke in the movie and the agreement was he was allowed to stamp out a cig offscreen.

      I did enjoy some of the Travers scenes nixing the Sherman brothers songs and I’m with you regarding her childhood flashbacks. Most of them felt clunky when they came up. I might be the minority with this flick. I’ve heard a lot of people really enjoyed it, but I probably won’t be watching it again.

      And by the way, Van Dyke always gets a lot of flak for his accent in Mary Poppins, but I think it’s funny. The first time I saw Mary Poppins when I little for the longest time afterwards I thought that’s how all English people talked except for James Bond. :o)

    • Very well said! The bottom line is SAVING MR. BANKS could have (and should have) been a fascinating back-stage look into the process and creative marriage, and instead it surrendered to the syrup and saccharine that Travers herself dreaded and that's what ultimately taints the project as a whole. The irony you noted at the end of your review is alarmingly evident.

      Speaking about movies being made about the making of movies, this reminded me a lot of ways with HITCHCOCK that came out a couple of years ago (hell, they are even set in the exact same time period!). I liked that movie overall a bit better in its execution than SAVING MR. BANKS. However, without the support of Universal Studios (which is a complete mystery to me to be honest), we had to deal with those climactic theatre scenes with altered dialogue…to film buffs like us, it was way too obvious they are not actually watching PSYCHO. Do you think had Universal been involved it would have been more revisionist and inaccurate?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I thought the movie was a wonderful escape into the past and in spite of its loose play with the truth, movies are an escape from the uber-real life we all live. I want Disney to be tom hanks. and I want tom hanks to be Disney. the music was lovely. everybody just needs to not be so hair splitting about something so fun. sometimes girls just want to have fun…just another view

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.