2014 marks the half-century anniversary of Disney’s bubbly live action musical Mary Poppins, the enduring story of a rosy-cheeked nanny who lands a plum gig with a well-to-do British family after falling to their house from the sky, umbrella in arm and cheesy songs in heart.
Instead of marking the occasion with a remake or a 3D restoration, the Big Mouse opted to make a film about making the film, recruiting The Blindside director John Lee Hancock to backslap the studio with a sugary chunk of corporate mythmaking.
The task of obtaining the rights to Poppins was, as Saving Mr Banks reminds us, no simple feat. Tom Hanks is cast as Disney and Emma Thompson as PL Travers, the curmudgeonly author whose book provided the foundation of director Robert Stevenson’s sing-along classic.
It took Disney a decade and a half to broker a deal with Travers, who was afraid her novel would get sucked up and spat out of Hollywood’s mush-making machine. The 1964 production was green-lit because Travers needed the money. She became rich off royalties, but not without paying a price.
Disney had little faith Travers would like the finished product, which was presumably why she wasn’t invited to the film’s premiere (though she managed to wrangle a ticket anyway). Saving Mr Banks faithfully depicts Disney’s snub, though whatever honesty the film has until this point flies out the window when it hones in on Travers crying in the audience.
By all accounts she cried, but not for reasons the Mouse would like you to believe. The dramatic meaning of the scene is crystal-clear: those tears were salty driblets of relief, marking a moment when pent-up angst softened into a puddle of catharsis. The truth is that the author hated what she saw and bitterly resented Disney for the rest of her life.
It’s not difficult to understand why the studio chose to confect wilful misrepresentations of the truth to rewrite the company’s history. Nobody likes knowing they’ve been fed a bag of baloney, but on the other hand most of us understand that movies lie (Jean-Luc Godard got it the wrong way around when he said “cinema is truth twenty-four times a second”) and intellectual dishonesty isn’t necessarily a precursor to “bad” art.
The great irony underneath Hancock’s handsomely produced vat of cinematic syrup is that it is precisely the kind of flapdoodle Travers would have frowned, moaned and tsk-tsked about. Saving Mr Banks is dumbed-down drama that whips out every trick in the book — from Driving Mrs Daisy-esque moments featuring a cuddly whimsical chauffeur (Paul Giamiatti) to flashback scenes set in Australia, with Colin Farrell in what plays like a chopped-up adaptation of a Hallmark get-well card — to sugarcoat a story that would have been more interesting with nuance.
The sweetness makes it palatable for audiences partial to some memory-lane Hollywood navel-gazing, but in this case it’s the sour stuff that helps the medicine go down. Emma Thompson’s scowling performance, while one note-ish, is Saving Mr Banks‘ most entertaining asset.
Scenes depicting songwriting duo Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzmann and BJ Novak) brainstorming those familiar Poppins ditties are indicative of the rose-tinted way Hancock goes about framing the past. Huddled behind a piano, the Sherman brothers workshop lyrics, bounce ideas off each other and carry on like cartoon characters. Their conversations go along the lines of “A something of sugar helps the medicine go down. A something of sugar helps the medicine go down. A spoonful! Yes, a spoonful!”
These moments may amount to nothing more than nostalgic pap but there’s at least a jolly spirit to them, a toe-tapping innocence that makes them kind of endearing. When Hancock gets serious, plonking an amateur shrink hat on Disney as Hanks rattles off a corny monologue about the redemptive powers of imagination, Saving Mr Banks’ dramatic credentials are laid bare. From that big chim chimney in the sky, you can practically hear Travers complaining.
This review was first published on The Daily Review.