Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)
Are you a fan of Mary Poppins, the 1964 live-action Walt Disney film starring Julie Andrews? It’s certainly a film that the United States Library of Congress now thinks is important enough to warrant preservation, and it’s definitely a film that has entertained many a child over the last 50 years. I know that I have always loved it, as well as its star, Julie Andrews, who filled my childhood with glorious music from that film and The Sound of Music. I’ve also always enjoyed the story of how Andrews, the originator of the role of Eliza Doolittle in the original stage production of My Fair Lady, was passed over for the My Fair Lady movie (in favor of then better-known star Audrey Hepburn), only to win the Oscar for Mary Poppins (Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady). Don’t get me wrong – I adore Audrey Hepburn – but Andrews should have been cast, instead. Still, if she had been, then we wouldn’t have the joy of hearing her sing “Feed the Birds,” and that would be the greater tragedy.
If you are, indeed, a fan of Mary Poppins, then I suggest you buy the new 50th Anniversary Blu-ray collection, which promises special features galore. You could, of course, go see the new Walt Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks, which purports to be about how Mary Poppins was made, but you’ll probably enjoy re-watching the original film more. It’s not that Saving Mr. Banks is terrible; it’s just not that interesting. With its overly sentimental and superficial psychoanalysis of what made P.L. Travers (the author of the books on which Mary Poppins was based) tick, it adds nothing to our understanding or appreciation of either Travers or Walt Disney, who together form the dueling duo at the center of Saving Mr. Banks. It does, however, offer up a few solid performances and even a few delightful moments of whimsy. There’s just too much saccharine in the spoon that the director, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), proffers to his audience. If you have a high tolerance for false sentiment, however, then you may gag less than did I.
Saving Mr. Banks tells two stories, one set in 1906, the other in 1964. The former is about the young Helen Goff, who will grow into the adult P.L. Travers, and the latter is about how that adult P.L. Travers is reluctantly wooed by Walt Disney (the man and the company) to sell him the rights to adapt her books for the screen. In 1906, we get a charming young actress as Helen (or “Ginty,” as her father calls her) – newcomer Annie Rose Buckley (quite good) – and in 1964 we get Emma Thompson (no-nonsense, and almost too much so). As the script flashes back and forth between the two times, we are meant to see how the traumatic events of the past have molded the sweet girl into the steely spinster of the present and, even more so, how the relentless charms of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks as, well, Tom Hanks) eventually work enough wonders to free the emotionally distant Mrs. Travers from the shackles of that past. It doesn’t work. Instead, the juxtaposition of a scene where Ginty’s alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, quite good in spite of it all) embarrasses himself with a scene of conflict between Mrs. Travers and the Poppins filmmakers just feels forced. Human beings are too complex to be explained through flashback alone. In addition, as has been well documented, the truth of the matter was more complicated, and the real P.L. Travers apparently never really accepted what was done to her book.
What does work in this film, however, are the scenes with the film’s composers, brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, played by a good-enough B.J. Novak and an excellent (better than I’ve ever seen him, even) Jason Schwartzman, respectively. It’s fitting that they should end up being the true sentimental center of the movie, rather than the flashbacks, since it’s the music that made the original Mary Poppins so charming. Novak and, especially, Schwartzman, show us the real magic of Disney’s best work as they perform the songs-in-progress for the dour Mrs. Travers. They may not win her heart, but they win ours.