There’s not a whole lot of mystery surrounding the ultimate outcome of Saving Mr. Banks. We all know Walt Disney made Mary Poppins, so there’s no “Will she or won’t she?” drama to be mined from the depiction of Disney’s efforts to woo author P.L. Travers into signing over the rights to her book. Instead of that if, the film has to rely on the how of her eventual agreement, and the why of her long-time reluctance to do so. The result is a film that juggles three or four different stories as it tries to put a falsely positive spin on the relationship between Travers and Disney for the sake of an uplifting ending. A spoonful of fiction helps the hagiography go down.
Saving Mr. Banks is bookended by a flashback to Travers’ childhood in Australia with her doting but irresponsible father, and the film returns to this thread repeatedly, usually at some appropriate crisis point in the main storyline. It’s apparent early on that Travers’ fiercely protective stance towards her book stems from its origins in her conflicted relationship with her father — it’s both a tribute to his encouragement of her imagination and an attempt to create a redeemed father figure Travers never knew — but we’re constantly flashed back to yet another instance where her father either delighted or disappointed her. After a while, these scenes lose their potency. In a straight-up Travers biopic they would have worked fine, but here, where they’re meant to be part of a slowly unwrapped mystery as to why she cherishes Mary Poppins so, they intrude long past the point where their job is done. We get it, but they keep on telling it to us anyway.
These flashbacks are especially egregious because they take us away from the parts of the film that really have some life to them. Both the scenes detailing the creative process behind the film and the slowly warming relationship between Travers and the driver assigned to her by Disney each contain tantalizing glimpses of a much better film waiting to be made. There’s always something compelling about how a familiar piece of art came to be made, and the scenes where the Sherman Brothers and screenwriter Don DaGradi carefully tread the minefield of Travers’ unwavering demands are delightful, both in their frustrated reactions to her rejections and their small moments of triumph when they finally manage to get something by her. Bradley Whitford is no stranger to this kind of ensemble acting thanks to his days on The West Wing, and the interplay between him and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Shermans is a comedic high point of the film. Every time the film cut back to the rehearsal room and Disney Studios I felt its energy pick up, and wane as soon as we left it. I wanted an entire film of the making of Mary Poppins done with that same verve and enthusiasm.
The scenes between Travers and Ralph the limo driver have a different tone to them. It’s almost a mini-romantic comedy dropped into the midst of the film, only without the eventual romance. There’s a meet-cute, an initial failure to connect or get along, a growing attachment, and a final moment of shared friendship. Paul Giamatti plays Ralph with his usual lumpy charm, but there’s such a sense of genuineness to him, especially when he tells Travers how much her books mean to his daughter. In fact, it seems as though the film is setting up this relationship as what eventually softens Travers to the idea of a Mary Poppins movie, and the way it plays out, would have made perfect sense had that been the case.
But you don’t cast Tom Hanks as Walt Disney to have him not be the impish savior of the day. Let’s be clear though: Hanks isn’t playing Walt Disney here. He’s playing Uncle Walt, the mercurial and beloved TV host and personality. It’s a white-washing of epic proportions, with only the barest occasional hints of Disney’s darker side; Disney’s refusal to invite Travers to the film’s premiere is explained as concern over her prickly nature dampening the celebratory mood, and a moment where Disney insists to Travers she must share Mary Poppins with him could have played as much more sinister in a different take on it. But instead, it’s shown as the sprightly enthusiasm of a grown-up child. And Travers lasting distaste for the finished product is completely toned down, made the subject of a throwaway line lest it get in the way of her cathartic tears as she recalls the saving her real father never received while Mr. Banks gets his. Even Disney’s habitual smoking is kept off-screen, alluded to with a brief joke. Can’t have the white knight breathing fire.
The biggest fault of Saving Mr. Banks is that we’re never really convincingly shown the moment where Travers decides to give in and let Disney make the movie. It happens mostly because it happened in real life and it’s time for it to happen in the film. We’re supposed to infer that it’s Disney’s impassioned promise to save Mr. Banks that does the trick — in a conversation that likely never happened — when it’s far more likely Travers’ fragile financial state was the motivation. It’s this forced magic, the need to prop up the mythologized Disney on which so much of the company’s reputation rides, that ultimately wins out over the real magic of creativity and friendship. The performances here are all first-rate (even if Hanks does seem to be coasting a bit on his accumulated goodwill), and Emma Thompson manages to convey more pain and loss over her tragic childhood in a few reactions and facial expressions than all the flashbacks manage to conjure up. But the performances are in service to a story that’s both disingenuous and not really the one worth telling.
As if to underline this, as the credits roll, we’re shown stills of the actual people behind the production, and actual recordings of the rehearsal sessions with Travers are played. And this small glimpse is more compelling than anything that’s come before it. And more real. And that’s the key mistake Saving Mr. Banks makes. It removes fascinating reality and substitutes unnecessary fiction.