On the page and on the screen, Mary Poppins is a ray of sunshine dispensing happiness among dysfunctional families like the Banks family of No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Her creator, P. L. Travers, was the opposite: a sad, acerbic, bitterly lonely woman clinging to the only thing she loved, her fictional creation. Travers was the archetype of the difficult author and in director John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” it is the legendary Walt Disney who will bring some measure of joy into Travers’ bleak world.
From the first it seems that the inimitable Tom Hanks portraying the master of the Happiest Place on Earth and the supremely talented Emma Thompson as the anguished Travers have signed on to different films. Hanks as the corny but clever Disney is working his comedy chops, trying with gifts of stuffed Mickey dolls and princess-colored cupcakes to coax his difficult author into signing over the rights to her book. Thompson, on the other hand, is working in tragedy, playing a woman so consumed by the traumas of her childhood that she has walled herself into an emotional castle and pulled up the drawbridge.
The film moves back and forth between Travers’ sojourn in Hollywood with Disney in 1961 and her childhood in Australia. Eldest of the three daughters of a charming but alcoholic bank manager who can’t keep a job and a mother on the verge of suicide, the young Travers watches her family disintegrate before her eyes. There are some surprises in the film that lead in one direction. The audience may be certain this is the inspiration for the classic character but here is where the film loses its way. There aren’t any clues to explain how the distraught child in the Australian outback became the lonely woman living in London.
What saves the film are two extraordinary moments. The first has an agonizingly lonely Travers in a hotel room in Hollywood taking an oversized stuffed Mickey to bed with her for comfort. What could have been uncomfortable or silly becomes in Thompson’s hands something inexpressibly poignant. The second scene finally finds Hanks and Thompson on the same page of the same script. Here there is a meeting of the minds, both getting insight in each other’s lives. In that minute they recognize each other as kindred spirits who have tried in different ways to use fantasy to come to terms with the past.
Travers’ emotional meltdown at the ‘Mary Poppins’ premiere underscores her journey.
Stay to the end credits to see clips of the real Travers and hear the recordings of her, Disney and the Sherman Brothers as she criticizes and they try to get through the script and music.
See you at the movies!