Mary Poppins, that titan of children’s cinematic joy of the 1960’s, will be turning 50 in 2014. Far be it for the Mouse House to let such a milestone to pass without fanfare; we’re likely to see some sort of super fancy Blu-Ray commemorative release, and I wouldn’t put a theatrical rerelease (in, shudder, 3D, perhaps?) past them either. In this case, though, the legacy of Disney’s grand musical could not simply be contained within the musical itself. With the help of screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, director John Lee Hancock (of the sugary biopic The Blind Side) to tell the “true” story of the making of Mary Poppins, specifically as it pertains to the character’s creator and her attempts to ensure the Disney film lives up to the legacy of their importance in her mind.
P.L. Travers, the writer of the Mary Poppins books, is represented on screen by Emma Thompson, a charming actress if ever there was. Travers is an easy fit for her, the sort of officious British soul very much in favor of demure tradition while affronted by the more progressive and easy-going nature of the Disney lot and Los Angeles. As the story begins (sort of, more on that in a moment), Travers has been courted by Walt Disney for years to secure the rights to Mary Poppins in order to turn it into a musical. She has abjectly refused at every step of the “negotiation,” showing no interest in the concept of her beloved Mary Poppins (never just Mary) being reduced to a cartoon, literally or figuratively. Still, her money is running low as her agent is quick to point out, and the royalties from her books are drying up. A trip to Los Angeles to be wooed by Walt Disney in person couldn’t hurt after all. She still wouldn’t have to relinquish the rights. Some more cajoling and Travers finds herself on a plane, refusing help at every opportunity, ready to take on the Disney empire like a matador facing down an oncoming bull.
Travers’ dealings with Disney, represented by Walt himself (Tom Hanks), and a stable of screen and songwriters (Bradley Whitford, BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman), is just one aspect of the story. Told in parallel via extensive cross-cutting is the story of young Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) and her upbringing in Australia at the feet of her loving but imperfect father (Colin Farrell) and exasperated mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson). It should come as no particular surprise that Ginty will one day grow up to become the very P.L. Travers we are watching butt heads with Disney in the present day sections of the story, and that many of the aspects of the Mary Poppins character and story are more autobiographical than we may realize.
The seams of Saving Mr. Banks come apart at near record speeds. On a surface level, it quickly evolves (or perhaps devolves) into an almost spectacular failure of characterization, which finds itself buoyed by the absurdities of the flashback parallel, which are so thoroughly and ingratiatingly melodramatic, that you essentially have to be convinced that they are parody, only to be confused and thrown off by the change in tone compared to the main story taking place in the 1960’s. The flashbacks are meant to be idyllic; this much is easy enough to see and understand. Travers clearly feels a connection to her father that is undeniable, and that connection needs to be well-felt in order for the structure of Emma Thompson’s scenes to work. These flashbacks are intended to serve the dual purpose of plot exposition and characterization. Unfortunately, in practice, they are so hilariously over the top that it’s impossible to take them with even an ounce of the gravitas you need to get out of them to prop up the film. By the time we see Colin Farrell majestically riding a white horse in slow motion through the countryside while the enraptured Ginty looks on, any possible suspension of disbelief is dashed against the rock. Colin Farrell’s performance doesn’t particularly help matters; his character arc of a devoted father undone by alcoholism is a broad one, and his accent, a mix of English, Irish and Australian is, let’s say, adventurous.
The hope would be that at least the other scenes, which represent a good two-thirds of the film, are better. And at the beginning of the film, they are. Thompson’s charm is in full effect, as she encounters a world she doesn’t want to be anywhere near with a cynic’s eye and a sour face. We understand that some part of her (most, if not all parts of her, really) wants to trip to fail, and it is perhaps her subconscious mission to sabotage things by acting like the most intolerable person she can possibly be to everyone she meets once she steps on the plane. My assumption is that the filmmakers expected Thompson’s prodigious acting talents to be able to carry us through Travers’ behavior, and it works for a time, but falls apart quickly. As Travers continues to dress down and lash out at everyone she meets, all of them polite as can be, and simply attempting to do their jobs, you quickly lose faith in her character entirely, because she’s just mean. Many who have written about Saving Mr. Banks have referred to the Travers character as “prickly,” but frankly that adjective is an insult to cacti. She is thoroughly joyless and aggressively rude throughout the proceedings, and it does not take long for you to start rooting for Disney and his creative cronies to throw her out on the street. No one in his or her right mind would ever legitimately put up with a person like this in real life, and when you compound that with how spectacularly the back story fails, you have a sympathetic character that manages to neither create nor earn sympathy.
But that’s not all. The other aspect of this film that is troubling is the hero worship that goes on during its second and third acts. The five people we come across who work for Disney (Walt, the three writers and a Jiminy Cricket made flesh in the form of Ralph, Travers’ limo driver as played by Paul Giamatti) are perfect human beings, faultless to a fault. They do nothing that would ever cross Mrs. Travers, other than having the temerity to call her Pamela the first few times they see her. Many of them don’t like her (and why would they?), but they never for an instant do anything but treat her with the utmost respect and deference, carving her constant browbeating into sharp relief. As their niceties eventually break Travers down and lead to her deciding to work with them, we see what Saving Mr. Banks is really about: the sainthood of the Disney brand.
This entire film boils down to one central conceit: Disney is the best and Walt Disney was a god among men. Only Disney, only the home of Mickey Mouse, could do the impossible and thaw the cold heart of that horrible human being P.L. Travers and heal her wounded memories (to the point that we see Thompson in her hotel room cuddling with a giant Mickey Mouse plushie with tears in her eyes, and I could not suppress a chuckle at the absurdity of it all). Only Disney could bring the joy of Mary Poppins to masses against the direct wishes of its creator. Only Disney could make all of this work. Because he is the greatest man to ever walk this work. That is the central theme of Saving Mr. Banks.
I can say with confidence that Saving Mr. Banks was the worst theater experience of the year for me. Even other films I haven’t enjoyed or outright hated, like Out of the Furnace or Man of Steel or Only God Forgives, each had a modicum of redeeming value to them, no matter how small. They felt like purpose films that were undone by poor choices. This is a thinly veiled insidious propaganda picture masquerading as a prestige biopic.