By Tracy Phillips
I thought I was too old to be sobbing at Disney movies. Saving Mr Banks proved otherwise. You can’t believe how annoying it is, having to scrabble around in the deepest recesses of coat pockets looking for a scrap of old tissue during the final credits (and finding nothing but dog treats). In fact, a reasonable amount of the film was watched through a sentimental haze. Call me cynical? Well, not any more. Finding myself in tears at a Disney movie about the making of a Disney movie (Mary Poppins) is about as discomforting as our main character, Pamela Lyndon Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins (played by Emma Thompson), finds “hearing a perfect stranger using her first name”.
If there is anyone out there who hasn’t seen Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964) or read any of the series of books by PL Travers, the first of which was actually published 30 years earlier, they obviously haven’t had children. Or maybe they just don’t like them very much. Ms Travers herself wasn’t too keen, or so we are led to believe. On a flight to LA, when a woman with a young baby tries to be friendly, Travers responds by saying, “is that child going to a be nuisance? It’s an 11-hour flight.” Emma Thompson’s comic timing in the role is brilliant here, as in the rest of the film. PL Travers (real name Helen Lyndon Goff) herself had one adoptive son. Although he was a twin, Travers chose to take only one of the boys on the advice of an astrologer. Needless to say, it didn’t end well, which in itself is a vital part of this woman’s story. But not one that this movie chooses to touch on.
Mr Banks of the movie title, in case anyone needs reminding, is the unhappy banker and father of Jane and Michael in the original Disney film (there are more children in the books but that is the least of the differences); Mary Poppins is the nanny who flies in with her magic umbrella to ‘save’ them, or at least one of them.
According to the film’s interpretation of negotiations between Walt Disney and Travers, Disney mistakenly thinks that Ms Poppins is trying to save the children. Well I guess he would, wouldn’t he? That’s what Walt Disney is all about. This could account, at least in part, for the protracted struggle that took place between Disney and Travers to wrestle control of Mary’s character. It seems Travers could not abide Disney’s fluffy, colourful, jollification of the world for children. Travers’ books are much darker, perhaps reflecting a belief that the role of children’s literature is to prepare them for the disappointments of the adult world, not obscure them. Her abhorrence of Disney, cartoons and fluffy toys seemed to extend to all things American, which provides much of the humour in the film.
The film starts in London in the early 1960s when Walt (Tom Hanks) has been working on Pamela for nearly a quarter of a century to realise his dream of bringing “our beloved Mary” to the big screen; a promise he made to his daughters. Travers would not be considering giving in, were it not for the fact that she is desperately short of money. Money: “It’ll bite you on the bottom.” So says young Pamela’s father, “Don’t ever stop dreaming.” This is great advice from a father who lives just long enough (he died when she was seven) to inspire Pamela’s imagination and mess up her future relationships. It seems all her personal relationships were complicated, not just with her son.
The action shifts between negotiations for the making of the movie in Hollywood and Travers’ childhood in Australia. Her father is a weak and frankly sad little man, a bank manager (making any connections yet?) and an alcoholic dreamer who finds it difficult to keep a job. But in this Disney version of events, if he looks like Colin Farrell then I guess he’s really rather charming! Her mother appears to be weaker still and suicidal. Thank goodness for the mother’s sister, who breezes in, looking rather like the Wicked Witch of the East (and not at all like Julie Andrews) with her umbrella and carpetbag to save the day.
It is a rather compelling story, perhaps over-simplified for a more traditional Disney audience. The message is clear: if Pamela had a few years of therapy, she might have learnt to share Mary Poppins a bit more easily. I don’t think she is meant to be a very sympathetic character. But in Emma Thompson’s capable hands, your heart melts for this strange woman obsessed with controlling a character in her books.
Emma Thompson’s performance is what makes the movie. It is what but you might call (but her character never would) ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’ She is brilliantly school-marmish, bossy and yet utterly vulnerable at the same time. She hates the idea of dancing cartoon penguins or Mary Poppins being associated with any kind of “prancing”, “chirping”, “twinkling” or “cavorting.” She says it all with a sneer and yet a naïveté that is totally empathetic, moving and hilarious.
She tells the Sherman brothers how to write their wonderful Disney songs and complains that everything in the script is “ghastly”. But you just love her. How ironic then that Thompson has not been nominated for an Oscar. Perhaps because lots of the joy of the movie is based on her character making fun of the Americans and the Disney-fication of her dark Edwardian tales. Mary Poppins was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won 5. Emma Thompson won’t be getting one, but her performance is superb. This is a very adult Disney movie that is well worth watching. Just take some tissues!
DIRECTED BY John Lee Hancock
STARRING Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks
UK/USA 2013 125 mins