It is such a treat to be pleasantly surprised by a movie. Too often it seems the only thing on offer in movie theaters is the next installment of whichever CGI franchise is due for a new chapter.
I’d seen the trailer and advertisements for Saving Mr. Banks. I knew the film was based on Walt Disney’s struggles to get P.L. Travers; the creator of Mary Poppins, to release the rights to make his, now classic, film. That is true but there is so much more here.
Being Disney, and Mary Poppins, I expected the movie to be “heartwarming”. It is. There is a scene in the Disney rehearsal room when Travers is introduced to the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” that requires tissues. Being Disney, I expected the story would skew toward storytelling with only secondary concern about historical accuracy. It is that too. What I did not expect, however, was that it would be so moving.
The conceit on which the plot is based is effective, albeit only partially true. The film provides a detailed back story of Travers’ childhood in Australia which presents a plausible explanation for her attachment to her creation. The story juxtaposes this against some details of Walt Disney’s childhood. The breakthrough comes when Disney confronts Travers with what amounts to a common truth about their lives. In her article on Smithsonian.com, Amy Henderson points out that, despite a wealth of documentation of their interactions; Travers required all her meetings at the Disney studios be taped, there is no evidence that this conversation ever took place.
That the confrontation is a dramatic device does not disturb me in the least. It is wonderfully effective storytelling and this film does not present itself as a documentary. Hanks gives an understated performance as Disney and the scene when he reveals some of the details of his childhood is moving. Emma Thompson, in discussing her role as P.L. Travers is quoted as saying; “it was wonderful to play this relationship between two people who’ve been very damaged as children and yet responded to that damage differently….”
More than anything, while I probably should not have been surprised, I didn’t expect to be absolutely blown away, yet again, by Emma Thompson. Many people, myself included, have felt this year’s Best Actress Oscar was Cate Blanchette’s for the taking for her performance in Blue Jasmine. Playing a character that is nearly the polar opposite of Blanchette’s, Thompson gives a subtle and moving performance, made all the more challenging because virtually all the emotional content is sub-textual. What Travers says usually has little to do with what she is feeling and her character’s default position is to display no emotional at all, save a general, off-putting, annoyance at everything and everyone. That we come to understand and care about Travers no small achievement.
The film is very clearly a Disney product. We are left with the impression that Travers was more won-over by the film than she actually was. Evidence suggests she never cared for the film very much and she never worked with Disney again. Similarly, the timing of Saving Mr. Banks cannot be coincidental, timed, as it was, for release shortly after the Library of Congress added Mary Poppins to the National Film Registry and just in time to kick off the 50th anniversary of the release of the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke classic. The Mouse knows how to market itself. So what! I haven’t spent as pleasant an afternoon the a movie theater is a very long time. I’m glad I saw Saving Mr. Banks. And if they queue up Mary Poppins for a re-mastered, 50th Anniversary, Special Edition theatrical re-release, I may go see that too.