I know that I’m behind the curve on this one, but there’s a good reason for that: I didn’t care. No, really. Looking at the trailers, the subject matter, and even — to a lesser degree — the cast, I couldn’t find a single reason to care about this film. Then again, this would hardly be the first time that Disney failed spectacularly at selling a good film (I’m looking at you, Frozen. And John Carter.), so I went ahead and gave the film a chance. And strangely, my reaction didn’t change all that much.
Saving Mrs. Banks tells the story of P.L. Travers (here played by Emma Thompson), the acclaimed creator of Mary Poppins. We immediately see that she’s got a mile-long stick up her ass and insists that everyone call her “Mrs. Travers.” That she never married and “Travers” isn’t her real name are hypocrisies that the movie never thinks to call her out on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, Travers is steadfastly refusing to write another book and the royalties have all dried up, which means that she’s completely broke. As such, after 20 years of courting by the Walt Disney Company, Travers finally agrees to spend a couple weeks in L.A. and weigh the possibility of selling the film rights. All the while, we flash back to Travers’ childhood (when she’s played by a young Annie Rose Buckley), showing us the genesis of Mary Poppins and why the character means so much to her creator.
Just to get this out of the way, I detested P.L. Travers’ depiction in this film. I loathed the character and hated every moment she was onscreen. Here’s a total bitch who demands the utmost respect from everyone and offers no shred of courtesy in return. To wit: There’s a scene early on in which a fellow airplane passenger offers up her spot to help Travers store her luggage. In return, Travers points to the woman’s child and says “That won’t be a nuisance, will it?” No gratitude, no humility, just total bitchiness.
Still, the crowning moment of “Go fuck yourself!” comes after one of the songwriters asks why Mr. Banks can’t have a mustache. Travers orders the guy out of a room, and then asks why he limped out. “He got shot,” says another one of the writers. “I can see why,” she replies. The next day, we hear that — because the aforementioned songwriter wears a bright red vest — Travers insists that the color red will not be anywhere in the movie. And if Disney doesn’t like that, then he can forget about the movie rights.
This is not a woman who’s the least bit interested in collaborating. She steadfastly refuses to explain herself and she makes everyone work to guess why she’s so intransigent instead of communicating her problems. In short, Travers is portrayed as a woman who’s completely miserable, set on keeping herself miserable, and actively works to make everyone around her miserable. And just when it seemed like Travers was going to develop into a more reasonable human being, she goes right back to being a complete twat.
I could not stand the notion of spending an entire film with this character as our protagonist. And understand, I don’t blame Emma Thompson for this. I know that Travers was every bit as stubborn in the real-life process of getting Mary Poppins made, and Thompson is just playing her part. But she cannot make this woman any less painful to be around. It’s entirely possible that I’m in the minority on this, since everyone else in my audience was laughing hysterically with every one of Travers’ barbed lines. But for my part, every word of bullheaded ignorance from her mouth made me want to slap the woman back to merry old London.
No, the real comedy in this movie came from the contrast between Travers’ uptight and willfully unhappy demeanor against the cheery attitude of Disney and his associates. Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman all show wonderful comedic timing as they play off of Travers and struggle to hide their growing aggravation. And of course, Tom Hanks is brilliant as the first man to ever portray Walt Disney in a mainstream picture. The filmmakers made the right call to go for an actor of Hanks’ caliber, as he portrays all the charisma and good humor that you’d associate with Uncle Walt. As a mogul, an artist, and a loving father, Hanks has Disney down pat.
The film’s other standout — surprisingly enough — was Colin Farrell, who appears in flashbacks as Travers’ father. Goff is an interesting man in that he’s an irresponsible fuckup and a hopeless drunkard (something Farrell himself knows about all too well, I’m sure), yet he’s also a very loving father. The man has such an amazing relationship with his daughters, sharing his boundless energy and imagination with them. It’s so wondrous to see the games that Travers plays with her father that it begs the question of how this joyous little girl could turn into such a stubborn old crone. Well, the flashbacks show us that transformation, and it’s a heartbreaking story to be sure.
On a technical level, the film is merely pedestrian. There are some questionable shot compositions in the climactic discussion between Travers and Disney, but everything else is serviceable enough.
Still, all of this is beside my main question: What is this film about? Thematically, what was the movie trying to convey? I certainly hope the goal wasn’t to show a thoroughly despicable woman taking her daddy issues out on everyone else, because I couldn’t be less interested. Was the film merely a dramatization to show how Mary Poppins got made? Seems to me that a documentary would’ve been the better way to go.
No, I’m guessing that this was meant to be a look into the many and varied conflicts of adapting something to film. It’s about the idea of creating something entirely out of one’s own effort, and then handing it over to such a collaborative process as filmmaking. In theory, I can understand how that subject might be appealing in an age when everything in arm’s reach is getting turned into a franchise. In practice, anything this film has to say is long since obsolete.
Take Watchmen, for example. Alan Moore explicitly said that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with any film adaptation of his graphic novel magnum opus, and he never gave his consent to any such adaptation. Yet the movie charged on into production anyway, because DC Comics owns the property lock, stock, and barrel.
We live in an era when stories are being written for the express purpose of getting made into a movie. And even if books and comics aren’t being written for that purpose, they’re certainly being written with that option in mind. As for properties made before the ’90s or so, when adaptation wasn’t so much of a given thing? Well, those rights have likely been passed on by now to the authors’ estates, to some other conglomerate, or into the public domain. In all those cases, consulting the original creator is either optional or impossible.
The point being that the pop culture and corporate landscapes have changed so much since the ’60s that we have basically nothing to learn from the Travers/Disney collaboration as seen here. The issue of copyrights are much more complicated than they were before, and the authors themselves have increasingly little involvement. What’s more, adaptations have become so old hat by now that we’ve all more or less accepted that there will be changes in translation. This means that Travers spends the entire movie coming to terms with something that everyone in the audience already knows, and where’s the point in that?
I don’t hate Saving Mr. Banks, but I don’t like it either. I enjoyed the performances all around, and the flashback scenes were almost good enough to make up for the drudgery of watching P.L. Travers. More than anything, I’m not convinced that the film had to be made at all. If this was presented as a documentary, it might have given me a greater appreciation for the classic childhood film. If it was a straight biopic to show the early years of Travers, it might have given some compelling insights on Mary Poppins and her author. But as an awards-bait picture about securing the film rights to Mary Poppins, I’m left wondering what the point was.
The performances were good enough that I can understand why so many enjoy this film, so I can recommend a rental to see if it’s your cup of tea (milk first!). But there’s no way I can recommend a first-run viewing.