“Life is a harsh sentence to lay down for yourself.”
We’re all storytellers. Living grants us that gift. But some people don’t choose to write as often, and instead relent themselves to a life spent wallowing in the past. Maybe to remember the good times. Maybe to reimagine the bad. The story of P.L. Travers, author of the famous Mary Poppins, falls into the latter. With a haughty and patronizing exterior, she is a cold woman obviously experiencing inner turmoil. Saving Mr. Banks takes way too long to break down those walls, almost to the point that Travers (Emma Thompson) just becomes a nightmarish protagonist. But with the help of a little Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) charm, those walls are pummeled to the ground to reveal a magical kingdom of emotion.
The story spans the globe in the first few minutes. A garden in 1906 Australia transitions to London 1961. Travers sits at her typewriter eyes closed and looking up. It has been years since she has written which has resulted in being broke. Her livelihood lies in Mary Poppins, and allowing Walt Disney to make her beloved character into a movie. The only problem is that she has held out for twenty years. A sad face and recognition that she doesn’t want to leave her house prompt her journey to Los Angeles, even if she vows to only stay a few weeks.
She sticks out like a sore thumb as she walks through the airport. Turns her nose up at patrons enjoying a cocktail in the hotel bar. Loses her mind upon entering her room, only to find countless Disney plush characters scattered about. Apparently the welcome she is given by the man behind the mouse isn’t warranted. Travers agrees to stay, and her encounter with Walt is the driving force behind the rest of the movie. Their facades are polar opposites, but have a common inner element; an attachment to their beloved characters. The ones they created for themselves. We learn how hard it can be to trust a stranger with a significant part of your being.
Throughout the entire film, we are constantly going back and forth between Australia and primarily Los Angeles. After some time we make the connection that this is Travers’ childhood. It’s hinted that her father is an alcoholic from an extraordinary shot. The camera zooms in on a train to reveal her family heading to their new home. Her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), takes a pull from a flask while the mother shoots a look of disapproval and resentment. Then it zooms back out into the vast Australian landscape. It’s quick, but telling of what this part of the story will hold. John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) lets this well-rounded cast, such as Paul Giamatti and Jason Schwartzman, take hold of their characters. I have to applaud the set and costume design as well. With so many distinct time periods, it had to be difficult to visually recreate those eras so perfectly.
Travers is a thorn in the side of everyone she encounters. She berates and insults the scriptwriter and musical partners helping her bring Mary Poppins to life. At one point she even tells Disney, “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.” It’s offensive, and along with him, we try to solve the Pandora’s box that she is. One particular scene shows her listening to a whimsical music number and the harsh memories that produced the words. The editing in the scene is inspired, and some of the best I’ve seen in years. The only answer to Travers’ sour demeanor must be a tour of the park “where dreams come true.” And that’s where the story turns. A flip is switched as she admires Walt’s infectious love for children and making people happy. She even goes so far as to dance to a song later on.
You’d think a Disney movie would have just a little bit more Disney in it. I was happy to see that it wasn’t a PR campaign to drive customers towards the parks or to go back and buy old merchandise. But I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the lack of Walt. You have the legendary Tom Hanks playing one of the greatest and most lovable businessmen of all time, but restrict his screen time. That’s a bit of an injustice. The back and forth between time periods works well in parts, but others sputter out. It’s hard for a scene to resonate with the audience when they’re abruptly cut away towards something else. It feels more like a person telling a story rather than a story being told by a person. The story must come first. Less can be more.
The last act is far too short, yet it has a few surprises and I won’t give them away. There is a meeting between Disney and Travers, and the film’s poster recreates the scenes sentiment. The mouse is a part of Walt and Mary Poppins is a part of Travers. We learn why that is, and how each has taken their own respective road to shape what it means. He sees the joy in life, and how, if she trusts him, Mary Poppins can bring that same joy to countless people around the world. That’s what the movie is really all about. Taking the good from the bad, experiencing dire circumstances and still feeling elated. You can see the glass half empty or half full. Or you can just see the glass, and be happy you have a chance to fill it with whatever your imagination holds.
“Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5