A clash of cultures with a war zone in the writers’ room, John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks puts adaptation and that special relationship on trial.
When Worlds Collide by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Made by Disney and featuring founding father Walt, Saving Mr Banks is a fascinating insight into the Disney machine. Yes, we’re a far cry from the accusations of racism and anti-semitism levelled against Uncle Walt, entrenched instead in a colourful and incessantly cheery world inhabited by toy plastic models, cakes and jellies and Disneyland. In Hanks’ hands, Disney is an affable producer struggling to fulfil a promise to his daughters and make a film of the nursery book they loved. And yet, he’s also quietly domineering, manipulative and uncompromising – used to getting his own way with a blank chequebook, an enthusiastic and energetic army of writers and directors and a benevolent way with words. And as Australian-born harridan PL Travers, author of the Mary Poppins children’s books descends on this sugary-coated, pastel-coloured oasis, it’s a clash of cultures, which can, of course, only go one way.
With the royalties for her children’s book drying up, PL Travers (Emma Thompson) finally gives in after twenty years and jets off to Los Angeles to meet movie mogul Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for the three-week process of adapting Mary Poppins into a movie. With an abhorrence for cartoons, singing, dancing and all things Hollywood, Mrs Travers withholds signing the adaptation rights, imposing a reign of tyranny over her driver (Paul Giametti) writer Don (Bradley Whitford) and the music-making Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) with tape-recordings and a ban on cakes and made-up words. But with a battle of wills in the writing room, PL Travers is forced also to confront the demons of her past, remembering the childhood events in Australia that inspired her famous nanny.
PL Travers, albeit Australian-born, is the epitome of stiff-upper-Britishness – taking her American colleagues to task over the Hollywood gloss of make-believe – all song and dance, cartoon and superficial sentimentality. There couldn’t be a more reliable critique for the Californian dream factory than this tea-sipping Pamela Travers – exasperating the Americans with her savage defensiveness of her books’ characters and her determination not to give in to the Angelenos’ stuffed-mouse charm – barricading the cuddly Plutos, Mickeys and Donalds that festoon her hotel room behind a cupboard door and resolutely forbidding the colour red or any Disney frippery in fact from her film. It’s a head-on collision, but just as in Mary Poppins itself, it’s a losing battle. And a cold heart like Mr Banks’ must eventually be warmed up faced with the irresistible charm of the Disney artillery.
The author’s journey to warm-hearted grace isn’t half so interesting as the Sixties-set writers’ room war-zone, even with a stellar cast of Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson and Rachel Griffiths as her younger self’s alcoholic father, suicidal mother and umbrella-toting aunt as well as a host of details borrowed from Mary Poppins – not only the aunt’s parrot-handled umbrella but also her handbag tea-set and bouffant bun. It’s a kind of curative therapy to repair her past traumas – to set the repressed memory of her father free, to enable her to find the feelgood glee and allow her Mary Poppins the Disney makeover.
Emma Thompson has of course created her own magical governess, writing and starring in Nanny McPhee, but her performance as the arch battle-axe from the other side of the pond is by far and away the best thing about Saving Mr Banks. And it’s to Hanks’ credit that he’s even able to hold his own. There’s a devilish frisson watching Disney eat itself, and they do take a few punches before administering PL Travers with a knock-out blow – past traumas cast aside, she even allows a life-sized Mickey to escort her into the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But from the studio that turned many a Grimm tale into a schmaltz of song and dance routines, talking animals and happy endings, Saving Mr Banks offers a fascinating insight into the process of adaptation – its emotional ties, animated tussles and its courageous leap into another man’s fantasia.
Saving Mr Banks is released on 29th October 2013 in the UK