Saving Mr Banks

Art & Culture

This sentimental, dishonest and irritating traversty of a film comes on like a prolonged trailer for Mary Poppins, which is exactly what it is, though it is also a eulogy to Walt Disney, and a triumph of American knowhow over English stuffiness. At almost every level, it is a horrrorshow.

The premise of the film is that as a result of Disney’s protracted wooing of P L Travers, and his deep psychological understanding of her childhood traumas, he was able to get her to come round to agreeing to letting him make a film of her book, despite all her reservations. And of course, by implication, the world is a better place as a result of the film being made.

At the risk of being seen as Ebenezer reborn, I have a different take on things. P L Travers (real name Helen Goff) resisted Disney’s overtures for years, until financial pressures propelled her into signing the agreement that he wanted. She disliked the casting of Julie Andrews, loathed the idea of Dick van Dyke, was furious about the use of animation, and refused to ever let her subsequent Poppins books be filmed by Disney. She was not invited to the premiere, but went anyway, and at the end was heard to say “What have they done to my book?” The reason I believe this version of events? Because it’s true and there is evidence for it, which is not the case with the film.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the truth has been cheerfully misrepresented. This is, after all, a Disney film, and Walt is not going to be shown as anything other than a benevolent, cheerful and wise man and by casting Tom Hanks, the deal is pretty much sealed. Next we have director John Lee Hancock, whose speciality lies in nostalgic and reactionary Americana (The Blind Side, The Alamo). Working from a script that is 50% flashback – and boy do those flashbacks go on and on – and heavily sauced with annoying music, he misses no opportunity to exalt the superior nature of American everything. Poor Pamela Travers never stood a chance.

The casting of Emma Thompson is the one stroke of brilliance. She is the spoonful of vinegar that makes the treacle go down. Although she conveys supercilious disdain beautifully, we know (‘cos it’s Emma, right) that she will eventually soften, and when her foot starts tapping to one of the ghastly songs that the Sherman Brothers wrote, her surrender (aka betrayal) is complete. She is shown to cry at the film’s premiere, suggesting that she was wowed by the film, but if there were tears, they were those of humiliation at how completely she’d been conned.

Perhaps I should say – if it is not already clear – that I loathe and despise Mary Poppins, the film, that is, not the book. I share every one of Travers’ reservations, and although I am thrilled that the film has given pleasure to millions of children over the decades, it doesn’t make it a good film. There is a certain irony in the fact that the children’s character Emma Thompson is best known for playing is Nanny McPhee, a Poppins-like creation who is as acerbic and tough-minded as Poppins should have been.

Judging by the response of the audience at the screening I went to and its box office success, it is a popular film, which is hardly surprising. I seem to be the only person on the planet who thinks that Julie Android, Dickhead van Dyke et al, should have been long since swept into the dustbin of oblivion. But I can assure you that if P L Travers (a complex, difficult and bisexual woman whose life story would make a terrific film) saw this movie, she would feel that Disney and his heirs had finally stuck a knife right between her ribs. And she would be right. 40 years later, they have their revenge.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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