This year’s BFI London Film Festival wrapped this weekend, handing out awards on Saturday (scroll down) and staging a rousing gala on Sunday with the world premiere of “a warmly, in fact outrageously sentimental and self-congratulatory film from Disney about the master himself,” as the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw puts it. Saving Mr. Banks tells “the story of how in 1961 the wily genius Walt Disney—likably played by Tom Hanks—persuaded the grumpy British dame P.L. Travers [Emma Thompson] to come to Los Angeles and begin talks to sign away the screen rights to her legendary creation, Mary Poppins. It was a project Walt had been working on for 20 years. The director is John Lee Hancock, who made the intensely patriotic football picture The Blind Side.” All in all, it’s “an indulgent, overlong picture which is always on the verge of becoming a mess. Thankfully, reliable old Tom Hanks snaps his fingers and—spit, spot—everything more or less gets cleared away.”
“Given its now-classic status among several generations of moviegoers, it’s easy to forget that Mary Poppins seemed far from a sure bet when it first appeared in 1964, given Disney’s spotty record as a producer of live-action fare,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas. “And one can easily imagine a fascinating film of its own devoted to the production of Poppins, from the canny casting of Julie Andrews (after she’d been passed over for the concurrent film version of My Fair Lady) to the creation of the film’s backlot, matte-painted London and the pioneering visual effects of Peter Ellenshaw. But Saving Mr. Banks has a somewhat different story to tell, about the ways in which life influences fiction, the ownership writers feel over their creations, and the conflicts and compromises responsible for bringing some of the most iconic Hollywood movies into existence.”
Mary Poppins “remains one of Disney’s most sinuous, even sinister, heroines, floating unceremoniously off the screen and leaving the Banks family to their healed devices,” notes Guy Lodge at In Contention. “It’s a bittersweet conclusion that came about as a result of Travers’s stubborn script demands at the pre-production stage, made while she held her unsigned contract as collateral. The most enjoyable stretches of Saving Mr. Banks aren’t, in fact, her terse tête-a-têtes with Disney, but the tortured workshop sessions between the author, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and [songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman]—delightfully played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as stooges with a wily streak, as clean-scrubbed and sharply side-parted as a pair of Disney princes.”
“Pitching her delivery somewhere between Nanny McPhee and Miss Jean Brodie, Thompson perfectly embodies Travers’s air of disapproval and distaste,” finds the Telegraph‘s David Gritten.
“As played by Tom Hanks, Uncle Walt is an avuncular everyman, combining business savvy with a childlike sense of wonder,” notes the Independent. “It’s an absurdly idealized depiction that Disney animators such as Art Babbitt, involved in industrial action against the studio in the 1940s, would certainly struggle to recognize.” But in a backgrounder for the New York Times, Brooks Barnes notes that Hanks’s “Disney acts in a very un-Disney way. He slugs back Scotch. He uses a mild curse word. He wheezes because he smokes too much…. [D]espite its well-earned reputation for aggressively managing its image, [Disney] can get out of the way and let filmmakers lead. ‘Wow, this was so not the battle I anticipated,’ said Alison Owen, the independent producer behind Saving Mr. Banks, which also pokes fun at Disney’s sometimes-syrupy brand of entertainment. ‘Disney behaved impeccably.'”
“Okay,” grants Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter, “so there’s no mention here of strike breaking or informing on suspected Communists to the FBI, but at least it’s conceded that not everyone was enchanted by Walt’s magic kingdom, and that there were murky shadows in his own biography, like an abusive father.” On the other hand, Saving Mr. Banks “couldn’t be further from the negative analyses of Disney depicted in, say, Richard Schickel’s scathing biography The Disney Version or the recent Philip Glass opera The Perfect American.”
More from Mark Adams (Screen), Ashley Clarke (Indiewire, B), Ambrose Heron, Oliver Lyttelton (Playlist, B), and Matt Mueller (Thompson on Hollywood). The BFI collects press conference comments from Hanks, Thompson, Colin Farrell (who plays Travers’s father in flashbacks to her childhood), and screenwriter Kelly Marcel.
Meantime, Buzzfeed presents 23 rarely seen photos from the Disney archive. And one more pointer for now, Caitlin Flanagan‘s 2005 profile of Travers for the New Yorker: “What people remember about the movie is that the family finds happiness and the nanny is magical. What they misremember is that it’s a film with a surprising moral: fire the nanny. In a sense, Mary Poppins is an anti-nanny propaganda film, the Reefer Madness of the working-mother set.”
Update, 10/23: For Calum Reed, writing at In Review Online, “Hancock has turned the making of Mary Poppins into a cuddly soap opera—not without charm, but disappointingly shallow in its approach to detailing the potentially fascinating creative conflicts between Travers and Disney.”
Update, 11/16: Paul Giamatti “makes the most of a relatively small part as Travers’s Los Angeles driver,” notes Kate Erbland at Film.com, “and his deeply human discussions with Travers (which, of course, have to evolve over time as the author slowly breaks down) inject the film with surprisingly sweet emotion.”
Harlan Ellison’s review
Updates, 12/7: “With Saving Mr. Banks,” writes Nick McCarthy in Slant, “the joke ends up being on Travers, who has now become the sanded-down caricature whose story drives the narrative of a treacly Mouse House vehicle.”
“Rereading the Mary Poppins books today,” writes Kathryn Hughes for the Guardian, “it is not the cod theology that hits you so much as their economic and political underpinning. While the Disney film is set at the apogee of empire—’The year is 1910, it’s the age of men’ crowed David Tomlinson as Mr. Banks—Travers’s book is firmly located in the 1930s, Auden’s ‘low, dishonest decade.’ The first awful shock of the great depression might have been over, but there’s a sense that nothing can ever be relied on again.”
Updates, 12/27: “I grew up with both versions of Mary Poppins, Travers’s and Disney’s, and while I very much liked the movie, particularly the songs, it was the creed of our household that the Disney version was ‘too sweet,'” writes Salon‘s Laura Miller. “Travers’s Mary Poppins is plainer and more snappish than Julie Andrews’ pretty, sunny nanny, but she is also more mysterious and thrilling…. There is far more power in whoever you imagine Mary Poppins to be than there could ever be in an explanation. And that’s why Travers never explained her.” And now Saving Mr. Banks twists the knife by “explaining” Travers herself.
Kate Erbland (Film.com) and Margaret Lyons (Vulture) dig into the real-life back story to separate fact from fiction.
Meantime, more reviews: Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 2/5), David Edelstein (New York), Anthony Lane (New Yorker), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Kiva Reardon (Loop), Jonathan Romney (Film Comment), A.O. Scott (New York Times), Dana Stevens (Slate), David Thomson (New Republic), Genevieve Valentine (Philadelphia Weekly), and Susan Wloszczyna (RogerEbert.com, 3/4).
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