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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Saving Mr. Banks review: behold the unclassic curmudgeon

Saving Mr Banks green light Tom Hanks Emma Thompson

A smart, snappy, soulful look at how Mary Poppins got Disneyfied, and the redemptive power of story for both teller and listener.
I’m “biast” (pro): adore the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

PL. Travers is not a very nice woman. She’s a classic curmudgeon. As she boards her flight to Los Angeles in 1961 to meet with the Walt Disney to discuss transferring her wildly popular novel about nanny Mary Poppins to the big screen, she is so unenthusiastic about the prospect that she announces, “I hope we crash.” This is a wonderful thing. Not just because curmudgeons are always so much fun in a well-told story — as the smart, snappy, soulful Saving Mr. Banks is — but because we don’t get protagonists like this in movies. The grumps are always men. But wonder of wonders, here we have Travers, who isn’t pursuing romance or protecting children or battling cancer, the things women typically get to do in movies, if they get to do anything at all. Nope. She is fighting for the integrity of her artistic vision. This never happens in The Movies. Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures) is clearly getting a lot of personal glee out of the role, as her Mrs. Travers — as she insists on being called, California casualness be damned — slings raised eyebrows and scowls like the devastating weapons they are at Disney (Tom Hanks [Cloud Atlas], as delightful as ever) as he attempts to turn Mary Poppins into “one of your silly cartoons,” Travers sneers. Why Travers is so protective of her book goes beyond the usual authorial guardianship and a perfectly reasonable disdain for Disney: the story is a very personal one for her, as we discover in extended flashbacks of her childhood in turn-of-the-20th-century Australia. (Oh my goodness, but Colin Farrell [Epic] as her dad is powerful in a way we haven’t seen the actor before; at first we see him as his young daughter does, as a happy-go-lucky free spirit, and later we come to realize that he was probably manic-depressive in a time before we knew what that meant.) Even as Travers very gradually begins to be won over by Disney, this message is never lost: storytelling can be a redemptive act for both teller and listener, and something worth fighting for no matter which end we’re on.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival


Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]


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Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
US/Can release: Dec 13 2013
UK/Ire release: Nov 29 2013

MPAA: rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
BBFC: rated PG (contains scenes of emotional upset)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    I’m afraid we’re just going to have to disagree on this one. I see this film as a celebration of the process of Disneyfication, and of how one woman was blandished, bamboozled, pressured, and emotionally manipulated until she made a decision that she regretted for the rest of her life. Yes, she’s fighting for the integrity of her artistic vision… and she loses.

    Perhaps as with The Conjuring, I find the subject matter so distasteful that I don’t really care how well the film’s made. Hanks’ Disney is apparently note-perfect according to people who met the original.

  • Danielm80

    There’s a scene near the end of The Breakfast Club that really bugs me. For most of the movie, Ally Sheedy’s character was an anarchic, unpredictable, oddly-dressed character, and then, late in the film, she got a makeover, so that she looked like a conventionally pretty girl-next-door type, instead of the much more interesting rebel she was before.

    Saving Mr. Banks looks like a two-hour version of that scene. It seems to applaud Disney for turning Mary Poppins into a sentimental crowdpleaser. And it seems to criticize Travers for resisting.

    One of Travers’ friends wrote an article about the person he knew:

    http://sdsuchildlit.blogspot.com/2013/12/saving-mr-banks-but-throwing-pl-travers.html?m=1

    She was a smart, skeptical person who studied with a Zen master, lived with Navajos, and spent time with W.B. Yeats. She was not thrilled with the Disney version of her book. I want to see a movie about her.

  • I’m sorry to hear she regretted this.

  • I don’t think it criticizes Travers at all. And the film certainly doesn’t diminish her in any way.

    The woman Travers’ friends writes about would, however, be a fascinating protagonist for a film.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    According to a story about the film I heard on NPR, it wasn’t the bamboozling or manipulation that got to her in the end, it was the money: She was broke and Disney was offering her a shit-ton of it. That may be why she regretted it, why her friends see her struggle as so noble, and why Walt wanted nothing more to do with her once the film was finally made. Also, it seems that P.L. Travers didn’t exactly put up a fair fight. Emma Thompson talked about listening to the audio tapes of the production meetings, which Travers insisted be made. Apparently at one point, script development was held up for hours or days, I forget which, because Travers insisted that the color red not be used anywhere in the film, and refused to discuss anything else until that matter was settled.

  • Beowulf

    I see both sides of the argument — the integrity of the “pure” artist, the coarsening of the material by the evil corporation, etc. But, lookit: she got a shitload of money, the book is untouched (it’s always there for kids and others), and Disney made a classic for kids who couldn’t care less if it was based on a “real” story.
    Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, MP is kept alive by viewers who see the movie and then learn there is a book and don’t rest until they find it and read it.

    Everybody is a winner.

    (A funny side-bar: a friend of mine has sold dozens of film rights to novels that have never been been picked up and made into movies. Some books he’s sold four or five times. He gets decent money and the films that aren’t made never cheapen his visions….)

  • Karl Morton IV

    The money angle is in there, but it is test up as the reason she ended up signing over the rights to Uncle Walt.

    SPOILERY: The movie pretty much had me until the 11th hour switch in tactics after Mrs. Travers throws up her hands and returns to London. Walt is supposed to have jumped on the next plane to follow her but somehow they learn all this biographical stuff about her that they never knew (or never indicated they knew) before in the whole 20 years they wrangled about Mary Poppins. Walt’s secretary could’ve googled her, I suppose, but oh wait…. It feels like a result of someone demanding the movie be under two hours and does none of the characters any favors, I think. Or was there a shot of Walt’s massive research file on P.L. Travers that I missed?

  • Judy

    I agree. She got paid enough money to enable her to continue to live the life she loved in the home she loved. Own your choices!

  • Matt Clayton

    I think you forgot the scenes at the end — Travers wincing and covering her eyes at certain scenes (the penguin scenes were a big note of contention) during the El Capitan premiere. It’s not like Disney doesn’t ignore her misgivings about the film.

  • Beowulf

    Googled her? In 1961?

  • Kathy_A

    I just saw this film this afternoon. Granted I am a lifelong fan of the Disney movie of Mary Poppins and have never read any of the books, but I loved this of-course-fictionalized making of film. Both Thompson and Hanks wete excellent, and I really liked the way that Giamatti’s driver relates with her. The very full theater was full of people who were also enjoying it, and I was not the only one sniffling at the end. And I thought the inclusion of the actual recordings of Travers’ consultations over the end credits was terrific.

  • Saving Mr. Banks does, briefly, sketch some of the other interests of PL Travers. We see a woman in utter conflict – she needs the money to continue a comfortable lifestyle and desperately does not want Disney to alter Mary Poppins. The flashbacks show why she needs this comfortable lifestyle so much – a messy childhood, a charming and mad father and a very no-nonsense woman who winds up saving her life.

  • Did you actually watch the movie? I didn’t see the movie as a celebration of the process of Disneyfication at all – it was a movie about the inner conflicts of PL Travers – the fact that she needed the money and really didn’t want to give up her rights to her character, but felt she had to. As a kid, I loved Mary Poppins. It was the first movie I ever saw twice in the theater. But I loved all of it – the silly singing and dancing, the outrageous accent by Dick van Dyke, and the more sentimental parts of the movie, like “Feed the Birds” (which, if Saving Mr. Banks got it right, was something particularly important to PL Travers).

  • cinderkeys

    I knew going in that P. L. Travers hated the Disney version of her story. As such, I assumed most of _Saving Mr. Banks_ was fiction. Still, I wonder if the Mr. Banks-redemption angle really did happen because of Travers. It’s the heart of the entire movie. Without it, _Mary Poppins_ is just forgettable dancing penguins and a few decent songs.

    On another note, you’ll get the most enjoyment out of this movie if you’ve both seen and read _Mary Poppins_. They really are different in tone. I enjoyed the book well enough, but I don’t know how well it would play if the filmmakers attempted to be faithful to the original.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    How would P.L. Travers’s poor opinion of the film version of “Mary Poppins” make “Saving Mr. Banks” mostly fictional?

  • cinderkeys

    The entire point of the movie is whether Disney can melt P. L. Travers’ heart and get her to be okay with their vision for her story. _Saving Mr. Banks_ implies (SPOILERS) that she did become okay with it, at least a little, and that _Mary Poppins_ the movie was ultimately healing for her. She wasn’t, and it wasn’t.

    It’s kind of like if they made a _300_-style movie about Leonidas and his tiny army of Spartans, but the Spartans win and everyone lives.

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