While watching Saving Mr. Banks, it’s hard not to wonder what the real P.L. Travers would think of the film. Treacle, I imagine her saying. Pure, Disney treacle.
And the film is treacly, but those who are not spinsterly writers with daddy issues can acknowledge that not all treacle is bad. There’s the character of Walt Disney, played with panache by Tom Hanks, and the overall presentation of the Disney Company itself. Though the lens of the film, Walt Disney could be described as manipulative and calculatingly jolly. The film seems to be an honest love letter to the Disney Corporation, acknowledging its excesses and showiness — but isn’t that why we keep returning to Disneyland?
The film opens with P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), a woman so proper that she constantly looks like she is breaking down in the face of a crude and grammatically incorrect world. Suffering from financial troubles, she is forced to consider selling the rights to her Mary Poppins books to Walt Disney. Her journey to Los Angeles is accompanied by a series of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood. At first, it is difficult to reconcile the imaginative blonde waif of the flashbacks with the grown up Travers. However, that childhood is slowly, too slowly in my opinion, revealed to be less than idyllic. Though there are some striking moments in these flashbacks, such as her father’s speech for the bank, as well as the arrival of the real-life Mary Poppins, the most engaging parts of the film are the interactions between Travers and Disney.
The Los Angeles scenes shamelessly play off the audience’s experience with the world of Disney. When P.L. Travers steps into her hotel room, stocked to the brim with Disney hospitality (“Poor A.A. Milne” she mutters as she shoves a stuffed Winnie the Pooh into the closet), the juxtaposition of Travers’ British stuffiness with the over-the-top-ness of Disney is at once expected and delightful to anyone who has any experience with Disney (so, everyone).
I wondered at first who the film was catering to. It seemed too mature for young Mary Poppins appreciators, too frivolous for their parents. But as the movie continued, I realized that the audience was older adults who could appreciate the pop culture references (Dick van Dyke jokes) that are since becoming absent from today’s popular culture.
Yet, it seems that most viewers can identify on some level with the character of Travers – the traditional woman pitted against the tide of cheerful commercialism – as well as with the depiction of the world of Disney – a trope familiar and easy to criticize. The film does not tell you who to root for. Instead, it asks you to sit back and enjoy.
The acting was top-notch, as one might expect from veterans Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. More minor characters, such as the Mary Poppins writers played by B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, and Bradley Whitford, did an excellent job portraying the comedy and seriousness of the creative process. However, even the quality of the acting could not mask the awkwardness of some of the plot, which often occurred when it strayed from the true story. Travers’ change of heart in the film occurs abruptly and unbelievably. And though the real-life author did attend the premiere of Mary Poppins uninvited, her sobbing at the event was due to anger, rather than joy.
Another way in which the film could have stayed more true to life was by developing the pre-Disney character of Travers. One sensed that very little had happened between the traumatic childhood portrayed in the flashbacks and the experiences at Disneyland. In fact, the real P.L. Travers had an adopted child (only briefly alluded to in the film) and various romantic affairs with men and women. What could have been a nuanced portrayal of a traditional woman with a complex past seemed like an oversimplified explanation for why women become prudish. Why waste Emma Thompson on such an uncomplicated role?
The film could have done with a bit more nuance, a fact that I believe Travers herself might have agreed with. Saving Mr. Banks was an enjoyable film, but it seemed trapped between harsh realities and fairy tales. This adaptation would have benefited from being treated as though it occurred in the real world, rather than in The Wonderful World of Disney.
If you think Saving Mr. Banks is Fauxscar worthy, be sure to share your opinion of the movie — nominated for “Best Literary Film” in this year’s Literary Fauxscars.
For more on the real-life inspiration for the film, enjoy this article about P.L. Travers from our archives: “One Nanny, Hold the Spoonful of Sugar: The REAL Mary Poppins and Her Creator, P.L. Travers”