Saving Mr. Banks Review

poster from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

Until I saw the trailer for Saving Mr. Banks, I had no real desire to watch Mary Poppins (too cutesy) or read the book (because I had no idea it existed). But in the interests of knowing what the hell they were talking about, I read the book and watched the movie the day before I went to see Saving Mr. Banks. I was surprised to discover how different they were, a circumstance which is explained in this movie.

Mary Poppins author Pamela Travers refuses to sell Walt Disney the rights to her stories until the re-writes address wounds left over from her own childhood.

Now that I’ve seen Saving Mr. Banks, I’m awfully glad I ‘did my research’ so to speak. This movie seems to assume you’re familiar with the book and movie (though I think you could get by with only having seen the movie). You may be confused if you aren’t. On the whole though, it was a very good movie.

We begin in 1961. British author Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) has been fending off Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years. He wants to buy the film rights to her Mary Poppins books, and now that her money has run out her agent, Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert) convinces her to fly to Los Angeles and at least hear Disney out. Even though she still has no intention of signing the rights away.

P.L. Travers with the rights papers for Mary Poppins from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

Oh, you want the rights? Here you go. Psych! I’m never selling them. EVAR.

The problem is this: the story of Mary Poppins is based on Pamela’s own life, so naturally everything that screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) comes up with is wrong. She also doesn’t want singing, animation, cuteness, or levity, despite the fact that it’s Disney’s bread and butter and that her own novels are filled with instances of two kids going on adventures with flying nannies and magic compasses.

P.L. Travers and Walt Disney on the merry go round at Disneyland from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

Yes, but it’s a very SOLEMN fair inside a magic chalk painting with GRAVITAS.

Her biggest problem, though, is the portrayal of Mr. Banks, the children’s father, as mean and coldhearted. Apparently Mary Poppins has come to save the father, not the children, as Disney thinks. However, Disney can be forgiven for thinking that because Travers’ own novel does not come across that way at all. In the book, Mary Poppins doesn’t seem to be there to save anyone. She flies in, does some magic for the kids, pretends she didn’t, and flies out again. There are no character arcs at all.

P.L. Travers and Don DaGradi from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

Wait… are you saying I’m not a good writer?

In fact, in the book Poppins herself is rather unpleasant – she’s vain, snappish, pushy, tells lies, and forces the kids to walk on eggshells around her lest they accidentally piss her off – and yet people like her anyway. The book character of Mary Poppins is more like the Pamela Travers character in this movie than the movie version played by Julie Andrews.

P.L Travers inspects the story boards from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

No, no, get rid of it all. It’s much too pleasant.

There’s not much to the Travers-in-California storyline. It’s a lot of repeated beats of Travers rejecting Disney’s work. She throws script pages out windows, rejects storyboards, shakes her head at the songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), frowns her way through a trip to Disneyland, and fends of conversation attempts by her friendly limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). Until eventually she doesn’t. The end.

P.L. Travers meets her limo driver Ralph from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided I can make small talk with you after all.

The storyline I found much more interesting was the series of flashbacks to Pamela Travers’ childhood. They were brought on by talking about Mary Poppins and where the story came from. Much more happens in the flashbacks than in the ‘present.’ As a kid, Pamela was a cute little Australian called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) who idolized her imaginative, doting father (Colin Farrell)… thankfully not in a pervy way though.

Young P.L. Travers and her father from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

And can I just say: Colin Farrell, wow. Nice work, man.

Ginty’s family was forced to leave their nice home and move to the Outback after her father’s drinking lost him another bank job, much to the chagrin of Ginty’s practical, un-fun mom (Ruth Wilson). What ensues is a downward spiral which requires the help of Ginty’s brusque, domineering, aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who promises to fix everything, providing the inspiration for the Mary Poppins character.

Young P.L. Travers with her family in Australia from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

Not providing, however, an explanation for why Pamela is now cranky, British, and estranged from her family.

I got a lot out of Saving Mr. Banks. It was interesting to see the evolution of the storyline (particularly the ending) in the face of Travers’ objections and the story of Pamela’s childhood explained a lot about why Mary Poppins is portrayed the way she is in the books and why there don’t seem to be any character arcs. It’s a battle of reality (Travers’ version) with revisionist happy ending history (Disney version).

P.L. Travers vs Walt Disney from the Walt Disney Pictures film Saving Mr. Banks

Come on, don’t you want to retroactively fix all your childhood problems?

So do I recommend this movie to you? Yes. I recommend it to writers (both screen and prose) who will understand how hard it is to let go of your ‘babies’. I recommend it to non-writers so they can begin to understand how much characters mean to their writer friends/family members. However, I do not recommend it to children, as there are some very grown up themes here. I also recommend that you read the Mary Poppins book and watch the movie first, as you will get a lot more out of Saving Mr. Banks if you do.

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