Title: Saving Mr Banks
Director: John Lee Hancock
Major Players: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell
Out of five: 3.5
“Inspired by true events” has been one of the most frequently seen/heard phrases at this year’s London Film Festival. It applied to the opening film, Captain Phillips, and here it is again, this time in the context of the closing gala, Saving Mr Banks. Both films also star Tom Hanks – and, after that, the similarities run out.
Here we have the back-story of the making of Mary Poppins, how Walt Disney himself managed to persuade the book’s author, P L Travers, to agree to assign the rights to him, how she insisted on the final say on many aspects of the film and how she continued to have reservations about the production, up to and including its premiere. At the same time, we also learn how her childhood influenced the book and her attitudes towards the film.
And it’s these scenes that are film’s big weakness. Not only are they too frequent, but they are a cumbersome way of making the connection between Travers’ own family and the one in her book. It’s almost as if writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith have made the assumption that nobody in the audience has ever seen Mary Poppins, so they lay it on extra thick to make sure we get the point. Scary Aunt Ellie, for example, arrives from nowhere carrying an umbrella with parrot head handle and a carpet bag, which she ceremoniously plonks on the floor. Now, where have we seen that before……..?
This is a Disney film in all senses. Made by the corporation that bears the man’s name, it depicts him in the way he probably would have wanted – kind, compassionate, astute and a good businessman. It also bears all the hallmarks of a Disney movie: a predictable, happy ending, with good prevailing despite the obstacles and laced with a large dollop of good old fashioned sentiment.
Playing Disney isn’t that much of a stretch for Hanks. But P L Travers gives Emma Thompson a role to get her teeth into. For the first half of the film, all we see is her intense dislike of all things American and, especially, Disney. They run in tandem with her determination to have the final say on the movie. But, as the film progresses, we see the other side: her frostiness is melted by her friendly chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) and she eventually finds herself enjoying one of the songs performed by the Sherman brothers. But her enthusiasm doesn’t last long and she is still shaking her head in disapproval at the premiere.
Of course, being inspired by true events doesn’t mean a wholly truthful account. What we are seeing is the Disney version. By all accounts, Travers intensely disliked the finished movie and that, together with feeling that she’d been badly treated by Disney himself, meant that she refused to consider any more adaptations of her books into films. Genial Uncle Walt made several attempts to persuade her again, but his approaches fell on stony ground.
Saving Mr Banks is decent, wholesome family fodder. It doesn’t tell us anything startling about the film-making process, nor does it do anything to tarnish the image of Disney the man or the company. And I don’t think it’ll be too long before it’s shown in a double bill with Mary Poppins. Christmas, probably ……
Saving Mr Banks opens in the UK on 29 November