Mary Poppins was in a tight race with The Sound of Music for most played VHS tape in my house growing up; my mother and sister held excessive influence over the VCR. If challenged, I could quote that movie forwards, backwards, and upside down. It shocks me how many people in response to hearing about Saving Mr. Banks claim they have never seen Mary Poppins; they don’t have mothers who believe Julie Andrews is a combination of the mother of Christ and Mother Teresa? A word of warning – if you have never seen Mary Poppins, there is much in Saving Mr. Banks you will neither understand nor appreciate. Here is a movie that is not a sequel yet requires you to be familiar with a previous film.
In Saving Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins’s creator, Mrs. P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), is quite an unpleasant woman to be around. The filmmakers show us a woman who relentlessly criticizes anyone she considers to have inferior tastes, which is everyone she comes across. A young mother on an airplane, her nice guy driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti), and even Mr. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) all bear the brunt of her condescension. Rather than quirky British snobbery or middle-aged lady fussiness, Mrs. Travers’s idiosyncrasies come across as awful rudeness. There are no family or friends in Mrs. Travers’s life and it is not hard to discern why anyone who does not want to do business with her keeps her at least at arm’s length.
I do not know whether writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith wrote this character so harsh or if Emma Thompson overplays Mrs. Travers’s glaring lack of social skills. Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks awkwardly slams into a giant pothole since it is near impossible to root for, let alone stand, the leading protagonist. Give us anyone else on the screen other than Emma Thompson. This feeling says a lot considering Thompson is usually a pleasure to watch and has proven multiple times she is a scene-stealer. Here she is scene poison. The film’s saving grace is that half of it takes place in flashback to the early-1900’s Australian outback.
P.L. Travers based Mary Poppins on her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths). Aunt Ellie arrived on the family’s doorstep to save them from a good-hearted, but increasingly alcoholic father, Robert Goff Travers (Colin Farrell). He is the inspiration for Mary Poppins’s Mr. Banks, an absent father, dismissive of his wife and children, but at his core, redeemable. Robert dotes on his young daughter, but through a series of poor choices and far too much importance placed on the flask in his jacket pocket, steadily moves the family down the social ladder and farther and farther into the wilderness.
Despite the downfall, P. L. Travers loved her father and cherishes the Mary Poppins stories created from the memory of him. This is the main motivation of her reluctance to the sell the story rights to Walt Disney; she is sure Disney will dismantle her beloved Poppins and make a mockery of it to pleasure the uneducated masses; even worse, it could be animated. However, Walt Disney fails to live up to this perception; Tom Hanks plays him as a shrewd, yet very likeable business tycoon. He desires to turn a profit on what he knows will be a sure-fire moneymaker, but his wish to impress the unimpressible P. L. Travers tries the patience of a man known for keeping his cool.
The supporting Disney cast including the musical Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are persistent and determined while weathering Mrs. Travers’s sharp-tongued acidity. Tom Hanks remains in a secondary role but effectively delivers a climactic, dramatic speech. However, they are all over-shadowed by the flashback Australia cast. Ruth Wilson as Colin Farrell’s suffering wife is wonderful and Farrell himself delivers a knockout performance as a man who knows how to be a great father but cannot get there because of his personal demons.
Perhaps if P. L. Travers were a trifle more sympathetic on screen, Saving Mr. Banks would not be such a chore at times. There are fantastic scenes including a musical interlude when the writers figure out “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for the first time, but the pall cast by P. L. Travers over almost everything and everyone else, including Walt Disney, removes much of the joy of what Mary Poppins is, a children’s tale. Director John Lee Hancock, an aficionado of loose adaptations (The Blind Side, 2009; The Alamo, 2004), adeptly tells two interlocking stories, one in 1960’s Hollywood and one in 1900’s Australia. Too bad he is saddled with a woman who is too much of a curmudgeon for the movie’s own good.