Saving Mr. Banks (London Film Festival 2013)
My train journey home from the Saving Mr. Banks press screening was spent scrambling through my phone’s lousy internet connection trying to find as much information about the original Mary Poppins novels, the film’s production, and so on. The biopic details the negotiation process behind the 1964 Disney film, when the writing staff needed script approval from P.L. Travers, the books’ author. As I waved my phone around searching for Wi-Fi, I wanted to inform strangers that my frantic actions were one of dissatisfaction: at 126 minutes, I learned little of the true story – or, at least, little in which I believed.
It’s worth knowing for context that Travers hated the 1964 Julie Andrews feature so much that she legally prevented any sequels, even when presented with scripts. Instead, Saving Mr. Banks portrays a more straightforward version of events that undermine her suspicion of the Disney corporation. I’m not sure if it’s a request from the studio or a choice by director John Lee Hancock, but the film is sickly sweet with a thousand spoonfuls of sugar, both in tone and music.
The unbearable sentimentality is introduced within a few minutes by an over-emotive score that reappears throughout, almost to the point of parody. Travers is introduced as a spritely, confident woman, played by Emma Thompson, who flies from Britain to stay in a hotel near the Disney offices. The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934 and she spent subsequent decades fighting off a big screen adaptation. She finally concedes on the grounds that production only proceeds if the script meets her demands, such as no pears, no animation, and no instances of the colour red.
Travers’ stipulations at first sound like tough negotiation tactics, next to requesting no red M&Ms. However, her stubbornness is linked back to flashbacks that occur so frequently, every nuance and symbol is hammered home so that even six-year-old viewers will roll their eyes. That’s also the general reaction from Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and the two writers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), who provide the film’s most reliable comic relief.
Saving Mr. Banks isn’t without its charms, as the central story is intriguing to anyone who grew up loving Mary Poppins – even if knowing that film exists rather negates any suspense. Thompson and Hanks do fine with their roles; both have charisma and take the characters as far as the tame script allows.
I imagine Saving Mr. Banks is more suited to an afternoon TV sofa viewing, or perhaps on a plane at a high altitude. After all, it’s a small piece of trivia extrapolated into a two-hour piece. If P.L. Travers objected to a sequel to Mary Poppins, there’s definitely no way she’d approve this.
Saving Mr. Banks had it world premiere today as the London Film Festival’s Closing Night Gala screening. More information can be found here.
126 mins approx
John Lee Hancock