How stubborn was Walt Disney? He spent 26 years wheedling Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to sell him the film rights to her book — call it determination or bullying. Travers thought he was a hack who would louse up her story with cartoon penguins. Walt thought she was a pest. And half a century after his magic nanny movie scored 13 Oscar nominations, his studio has polished up his heroic quest like a bronze of Alexander the Great liberating Egypt. Suck on that spoonful, old lady.
Saving Mr. Banks, a fictionalized account of two weeks Travers spent on the lot in Burbank, is proof that Walt has thawed and secretly reclaimed Disney’s reins. Not only is he awarding his feat a second round of applause, to play himself he’s cast no less than Tom Hanks, America’s dad, a man who still looks huggable doused in Somalian pirate blood. Hanks’s Walt has a soft belly, a hard head, and the twang of a boy raised on a Missouri farm. Instead of out-arguing Travers’s qualms, he simply smothers them in sugar. Watching the two go head-to-head is like watching a melted marshmallow drape itself over a spike. (Though if you look closely, Hanks’s eyes flicker with a steely glint.)
Against a charmer like that, Emma Thompson’s tweedy Travers doesn’t stand a chance, not that director John Lee Hancock gives her one. Audiences who love Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins are forced to dislike its author, who loathes everything about it: the musical ditties, Dick Van Dyke, even Mr. Banks’s mustache. That’s not all she hates. Travers despises children, California, stuffed animals, Jell-O, and fun. Cookies are vulgar. Disneyland, she sniffs, is sickening.
Thompson is good in a punishing role. In her first scene, she stares down the camera as if it’s a dog who might nip her heels. She keeps her neck tight, her mouth pinched, and her nose aloft as though she’s sniffing for trouble. When she clicks into the room in her sensible pumps, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and bouncy songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) shiver. Her Travers is as unpleasant as a pine needle pillow, and she’s as far away from the actual woman as “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is from being a real word.
In reality, Travers was a feisty, stereotype-breaking bisexual — a single mom who adopted a baby in her 40s, studied Zen mediation in Kyoto, and was publishing erotica about her silky underwear 10 years before Walt had sketched his mouse. Now that’s a character worth slapping onscreen, instead of this stiff British stereotype determined to steal joy from future generations of children. With her longtime girlfriend and then-adult son erased, this frigid Travers seems as if she may not even know how babies are made. Perhaps Mary Poppins could sing her a song about it.
Why does it matter that Saving Mr. Banks sabotages its supposed heroine? Because in a Hollywood where men still pen 85 percent of all films, there’s something sour in a movie that roots against a woman who asserted her artistic control by asking to be a co-screenwriter. (Another battle she lost — Mary Poppins’ opening credits list Travers as merely a “consultant.”) Just as slimy is the sense that this film, made by a studio conglomerate in a Hollywood dominated by studio conglomerates, is tricking us into cheering for the corporation over the creator. We take sides because we can’t imagine living in a world without the songs the Sherman brothers wrote for the film: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Feed the Birds,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” We wouldn’t have had to either way; if Mary Poppins had collapsed, Walt planned to package them up wholesale for Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
As a feint toward empathy, Saving Mr. Banks splices in Travers’s hardscrabble childhood in Australia. Her father (a charismatic Colin Farrell) was a yarn-spinning drunk, her mum (Ruth Wilson) a wispy depressive. In them, we see traces of what will become both her inspiration and irritants: disorder, whimsy, and an instant suspicion of imps like Walt. Her history is true enough, but it’s also the kind of missing-puzzle-piece pat psychology Travers would have loathed — not to mention a fictionalized excuse for Hanks’s Walt to play Dr. Phil and solve her kiddie traumas. The real Walt didn’t bother — he deliberately decamped to Palm Springs as soon as her plane touched down. Neither Walt invited her to Mary Poppins’ premiere. So she invited herself, a 65-year-old crasher at a party that should have been in her honor.
Walt was popsicled two years later. Travers lasted another three decades. But while Saving Mr. Banks feels like his risen-from-the-grave attempt to pretend that Travers cried during the film only because it reminded her of her daddy, the disgruntled writer got her own eternal revenge on Walt, Burbank, and the sunny country that’s made Mickey Mouse its international ambassador. Not only did she forbid the studio from making a sequel, in her will she decreed that no American would ever be allowed to tamper with her Mary Poppins again.
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