PL Travers’ magical nanny Mary Poppins is now so inseparable from the classic 1964 Disney film that it comes as a shock to learn just how fiercely the author resisted attempts to put her creation on screen.
Saving Mr Banks is the story of how Walt Disney’s 20-year campaign to coax Travers into giving him the film rights to her creation finally bore fruit – and it’s an unexpected gem, a witty and warm-hearted celebration of two great storytellers that adroitly balances delicious culture-clash comedy with affecting biographical insights.
The movie’s spine is the fortnight the 62-year-old writer spent in Hollywood in 1961, having reluctantly agreed to leave her London home to hear Disney (Tom Hanks) and his creative team outline their proposals. Played by Emma Thompson, the tweedily English, frightfully proper Travers is hopelessly at odds with almost everything she encounters in Los Angeles. The city’s smell (‘chlorine and sweat’) and the cheery informality of its inhabitants raise her hackles from the start – and that’s before she’s even heard what Tom Hanks’ Walt has in mind for Mary Poppins.
He wants songs and animation, and Dick Van Dyke, all of which fills her with horror and makes for a prickly mood in the rehearsal room, where exasperated writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and tunesmiths Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak) run into her intransigence at every turn.
Exquisitely performed by Thompson and her co-stars, these scenes are delightfully droll. But a more sombre note is struck by the memories that ambush Travers during her stay, flashbacks threaded through the film that gradually show that her seemingly absurd pig-headedness is rooted in childhood hurt.
It transpires that the oh-so-English Travers is, in fact, an Australian whose sun-baked upbringing in the outback holds the key to a book set in damp Edwardian London. And it is the figure of her father, a lovable feckless alcoholic (played by Colin Farrell), who is the source of both her storytelling gifts and her pain.
Juggling past and present with consummate skill, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith put all this together beautifully. The performances are terrific, too. Hanks gives Disney a folksy shrewdness while Thompson’s perfectly pitched performance mines exquisite humour from Travers’ crankiness. The audio excerpts from the real Travers’ Disney meetings that play over the film’s closing credits shows how accurate her impersonation of the writer actually is.
Saving Mr Banks does take a few liberties with actual events – and some viewers may prefer to do without the spoonful of sugar Hancock serves – but as mainstream entertainment, the movie like Mary Poppins herself, is practically perfect in every way.
Certificate PG. Runtime 120 mins. Director John Lee Hancock.
Released on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download on Monday 24th March by The Walt Disney Company.
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