Saving Mr Banks tells ‘the untold true story’ of the making of the Disney classic Mary Poppins via the stand-offs between Walt and the book’s author, P.L. Travers, and it is not a taxing film. You always know where it’s going and, with its rather melodramatic flashbacks, there is no ambiguity as to where it is coming from, but neither matters as much as they should as there is just so much joy to be had otherwise. It stars both Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson (you spoil us, ambassador!), is smartly and deftly directed (by John Lee Hancock) and if you can’t get off on the composers, the Sherman brothers, sitting at the piano and coming up with ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ or ‘Spoonful of Sugar’ there is something seriously wrong with you, and you possibly need a doctor’s appointment. Also, if you stay until the end of the credits, you will hear something that will give you goose bumps. I can’t, alas, say what it is, because that would be a ‘spoiler’, and you can get ten years for spoilers these days, plus I will be expelled from the Critics’ Circle. (I’m not even a member of the Critics’ Circle, so imagine the shame of being expelled before I’d even been invited to join!)
We kick off in the early 1960s, by which time Travers (Thompson) had already been courted by Walt (Hanks) for 20 years but had always refused to sell him the film rights to her book on the grounds he would turn Mary into something ‘all cavorting and twinkling’. (She had a point. The book is actually rather dark and cruel, with no dancing penguins, although this isn’t to say the resultant film wasn’t a masterpiece. You don’t have to choose between the two, as far as I’m aware.) However, finding herself short of money, she finally agrees to travel from London to Hollywood to meet with him — ‘Call me Walt, Pamela’; ‘Call me Mrs Travers, Mr Disney’ — and work for two weeks with the scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman), and is it a jolly ’oliday? It is not.
On first arriving at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and discovering her room has been filled with Disney stuffed toys, she locks the giant Mickey Mouse in a cupboard but there is worse for Winnie-the-Pooh. She merely looks at him disdainfully and sighs: ‘Poor A.A. Milne.’ She is impossible to work with, digging her heels in at every turn, giving everyone grief at the most minor details, taking endless notes, and even, at one point, insisting she doesn’t like red, and therefore it must not appear in the film. Such curmudgeonliness is played mostly for laughs, particularly when it rubs up against the American can-do attitude, and Walt’s repeated attempts to charm her. But Thompson is such a gifted actress she also suffuses Travers with great sorrow, pain and loneliness. One night, she frees Mickey from the cupboard and takes him to bed for a cuddle. Not subtle, but still affecting.
Her difficulties, we are given to understand, rather heavy-handedly, all go back to her traumatic childhood in Australia, shown in flashback. She grew up with a mother (Ruth Wilson) who was needy and suicidal and a father (Colin Farrell), whom she adored, but who was a fantasist, alcoholic bank manager who died when she was seven. This parallel storytelling deals in what I call Direct Arrow Psychology, with a direct arrow simplistically going from past events to behaviours today, but once Walt makes the connection between Travers’s father and Poppins — the West Wind brought her in to rescue Mr Banks, not Michael and Jane — she softens, as we always knew she would. (That said, although this has the required, cathartic happy ending, when Travers died in her 90s her will stipulated that ‘no Americans’ were to be directly involved in ever bringing any of her books to stage or screen. That’s an extra fact I’ve put in for you. No charge. )
Saving Mr Banks isn’t perfectly perfect. It’s a Disney film about a Disney film, so Walt is always noble and charismatic and patient and adorable. (It is only the Hanks performance that saves him from outright blandness.) There are also moments that are a spoonful of sugar, way, way too far. Travers’s relationship with her Hollywood driver, played by Paul Giamatti, for example, is so sugary it’ll make your fillings cry out. But, on the whole, it goes down in the most delightful way, and there is also that thing I can’t tell you about, after the end, which may or may not be an actual audio recording of Travers, and which may or may not be as spooky as hell, in view of what you’ve just seen. I can’t tell you anything about this because I don’t want to be expelled from the Critics’ Circle before I’ve even been invited to join. The shame!