In 1964, the children's author PL Travers finally succumbed to Walt Disney's wishes to adapt her fictional heroine Mary Poppins on the big screen. Disney, as was his talented want, produced a sweet magical and wholesome adventure for children that has endured for 50 years. Travers was horrified, believing the film simplified her creation and made it appear foolish. She disliked the production, refused any suggestion of a follow up film from Disney and remained extremely protective of her characters right up until her dying day in 1996.
Anyone who has read any of Travers original novels will know just how different they are compared to the more better known light and fluffy screen adaptation. They are darker, more moralistic in tone, far less smooth and tidy and the mysterious 'almost frightening (but) exciting' Poppins' actions are often highly questionable - such as abandoning and consigning Jane to a past world within a painted plate where a cackling old man (and possible paedophile) wishes her to remain with him, just to ensure that Jane behaves in future. Like the very best traditional fairy tales they steadfastly refuse to soft soap its intended young readers (though Travers always insisted her work was for adults too) and take as much a delight in unsettling and scaring them as they do in perhaps preparing them for the realities of the world as Travers saw it; a world where nothing is forever.
Saving Mr Banks is a fictionalised account of Disney and Travers' fractious relationship during the making of the 1964 film and, it could be argued, that the Disney studios have done it again. In depicting Travers, the king of warm hearted saccharine fun for all the family has softened Travers by attempting to explain the author's frosty and stern demeanour by exploring her childhood in Australia and the tragedy they perceive she never got over - the death of her alcoholic banker father whom it is believed the novel's Mr Banks was based upon. All this despite Travers' own steadfast denial that any of her works where ever really based on her own turbulent and tragic upbringing.
Perhaps what sticks in the craw the most about Saving Mr Banks and the Disney ethos in general is that there is a right way and a wrong way to live one's life, a right outlook and a wrong one. Walt Disney, the affable cartoonist, is of course presented as having the right outlook, that of finding the good and the happy ending in every aspect of the technicolour hued, endlessly sunny, oversized playground that is the world, whilst PL Travers rainy, more complex and seemingly pessimistic - though perhaps just more real - outlook is in fact all wrong. As a result of the ensuing culture clash, it is the film's message that it is the Disney Poppins that is the only viable interpretation which rather dismisses Travers' talent as much as it believes Travers as a human being could only be redeemed by taking a different more touchy feely view of life and just lightening up a bit. The fact that what we actually have here; a determined and independent British-Australian woman of some talent standing up for her own creation and life's work in the very male dominated and alien environment of a major Hollywood studio of the time is not in any way celebrated, instead it is used for humourous culture clash incidents right up until Travers realises Disney's way is right, is quite sad and more than a little bullying really.
Much of what made Travers so complex is of course swept across the film and out of its existence like so much dust under Poppins' broom. The complex and the untidy have no place in the conventional U or PG rated Disney world. Travers sexuality is still hotly contested and her determination as a single, possibly gay woman, to adopt a child in 1939 is one that is decades ahead of her time. Tellingly, Travers' adopted son Camillus isn't alluded to in the film at all, nor is the fact that in becoming his mother, Travers refused to adopt Camillus' twin brother Antony - an act that would create problems in the mother/son relationship in the late 50s when Camillus found out, felt totally betrayed and went off the rails, resulting in a spell in prison. That this occurred when Travers was working with Disney to get Mary Poppins to the big screen and is ignored in Saving Mr Banks says it all really. Yet, despite only having the basics of the complex multi dimensional and fallible character to play with, Emma Thompson - who had taken inspiration from Travers in creating her own mysterious Nanny McPhee - manages to create something that is the film's one true saving grace and reason to stay until the end credits.
The flashbacks to her Australian childhood may be key to how the film wishes to depict and explain Travers but it remains Saving Mr Banks' weakest point. Colin Farrell plays Travers' father, a character in possession of both a fatal case of costume drama cough (all hankies to mouth to reveal traces of blood) and an extremely iffy English accent that makes one wonder if he had the same dialect coach as Dick Van Dyke. There's a brief appearance from Rachel Griffiths as the template for Poppins but it feels like an indulgence at best and an afterthought at worst. These scenes drag, intrude when the viewer is enjoying scenes of Thompson speaking to BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman's Sherman brothers, and tire and irritate in their intention to explain the reason why the character is as she is.
That Saving Mr Banks is a Disney production is obvious on every frame. Indeed, it could not be more obvious if it had the Disney logo patched upon the top right hand corner throughout. Disney's character as played by Tom Hanks at his smoothest is not at all complex, and his motivations are always genuine, clear and honest. In bringing Poppins to the screen, Disney is simply fulfilling a promise he made to his daughters twenty years prior and therefore being a great father (and shame on Travers for not acquiescing to Disney earlier!) What is not entertained, though is briefly suggested via Travers disdain and suspicion, is the notion that Disney is determined to buy the rights to further cement his reputation and empire. Of course as the film progresses, Disney will have another motivation and that is to draw out the happy go lucky inner child within Travers and help her come to terms with her dead father. The only flaw the film desire to show from its founding father is the fact that he *shock horror* smoked! Albeit, behind closed doors because he knew if people saw him they'd maybe adopt the habit to emulate him. Disney is shown to go out of his way to offer Travers an answer and some redemption, but nothing is made of his atrocious stance towards Travers once the film was made and he had his profit assured, namely that he did not even invite her to the premiere. Disney does not have flaws, whereas Mrs PL Travers most assuredly did.
Away from the simplistic, warm blanket atmosphere of sentimentality and sugar sweetness, which is frustrating enough - especially as, despite oneself, you do sometimes fall for certain key moments, (proving that Disney still has that magic touch) is the fact that the film really drags its heels across its two hour running time which is ultimately just as unforgiveable. The film doesn't feel as much directed by John Lee Hancock, rather than manipulated by both him and Disney. As such its a diverting enough story but one to be taken with a pinch of salt rather than a spoonful of sugar.
In conclusion, the strong but flawed and talented Travers never got the Mary Poppins adaption that she deserved from Disney and, in Saving Mr Banks, she never got the biopic she deserved from the corporation either.