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Stories are one of the world’s few truly universal concepts. It is through the sharing of stories that we learn lessons, entertain, frighten, and challenge one another and ourselves to see beyond our everyday lives. Sometimes, however, the telling of stories can perform the even more difficult task of helping us maneuver through the trials and tribulations of our own pasts. For author P. L. Travers, the tale of a magical nanny and the family whom she rescues from themselves was the ideal outlet with which to cope with her troubled childhood. In the film Saving Mr. Banks, Travers is forced to finally come to terms with her past in a battle of the wills over the rights of her beloved heroine, Mary Poppins, and learns to see the world beyond her own pain in the process.
The story begins in 1962 as Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) continues his twenty year struggle to obtain the film rights to the Mary Poppins’ series from curmudgeonly author Travers (Emma Thompson). Although she loathes the prospect of giving up her most famous creation, Travers’ dwindling finances force her to reconsider her position and travel to Los Angeles to consider Disney’s proposition. As Disney is well aware and his staff soon learns, Travers is a far cry from the magical nanny she wrote about and is actually a woman whom harsh life experiences have left hardened and bitter. Travers proves just how much her franchise means to her throughout the film-making process as she argues with the crew over every minute aspect of the film from its song lyrics, to its set, to even the fact that Mr. Banks has been given a mustache. Flashbacks throughout the film provide insight into Travers stubborn rejections by revealing the childhood that inspired her to write Mary Poppins in the first place. Through the juxtaposition of the past and present, it soon becomes evident why Mary Poppins is so critical to Travers and just whom the nanny is really supposed to be saving.
One of the most effective aspects of the film is the way in which it uses Travers’ past to inform her present with Disney. When the film first flashes back to Travers playing with her father (Colin Farrell) as a child, he seems to bear more similarity to Bert, the lighthearted chimney sweep played by Dick Van Dyke in the film version of Mary Poppins. As the story progresses, however, Travers Goff is revealed to be a complicated figure with demons of his own, chief among them his addiction to alcohol. While watching her idol unravel as her father descends further into addiction, the young Helen Goff (Travers real name) finds her view of the world and her place in it shattered. While Travers story could have easily lent itself to sentimentality and become yet another tale of a ‘curmudgeon with a heart of gold’ Banks resists this obvious track and instead remains loyal to the facts of its story by showing that even her eventual change of heart could not completely undo the damage of her early losses. Through these intertwining segments of her past the film not only explains Travers’ harsh outlook on life, but also the subtext behind Mary Poppins and the reason that the story remains so dear to its author.
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The film also excellently captures the creativity and difficulty of film-making. Throughout the film, Disney’s crew is shown tirelessly working on the script and working together to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of its completion. While many films show the creative process as being filled with instant inspiration and constant camaraderie, Saving Mr. Banks instead wisely shows the entire creative process, warts and all. For example, the songwriters are consistently shown stuck on various lyrics or notes that hold them back from completing a song and the screenwriters are revealed to be dumfounded by numerous oddities and plot holes in the original source material. By far the greatest difficulty that they face, however, is Travers' insistence upon interfering with even the most mundane details that the crew had considered long since settled. Through their drive for a common ambition, however, Disney’s staff manages to not only make a cohesive script that respects many of Travers' excessive wishes, but also create a cinematic icon in the process. As a result, the emotional resonance is much greater when Disney finally obtains the film rights and the picture is completed because the audience has watched the crew work and empathized with their struggled for the preceding hour and a half.
Through their truly mesmerizing performances, the cast brings the story behind Mary Poppins to vibrant life. Tom Hanks provides an excellent turn as Walt Disney as he conveys both the charming movie mogul and hard-nosed businessman that comprise his character. Emma Thompson provides a truly complex portrayal as Travers, and strikes the perfect balance between Travers' caustic personality and the traumas that ultimately led to it. Together, the pair have a chemistry that is truly magical as they engage in a fierce battle of wills only to discover that they possess a common goal and motive after all. Colin Farrell also turns in a layered performance as Travers’ father, masking his interior torments behind an idealistic exterior. The supporting cast ensures that the film remains truly three dimensional as they make fully fleshed characters out of roles that could have easily been relegated to plot devices and types.
Much like Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks is a film for both the young and young at heart. It is a story about the pain that life all too often inflicts and the power of imagination that enables us to cope with and rise above that pain. Through its combination of superior script, realistic performances, and historical insight the story behind the familiar tale of Mary Poppins comes to vibrant life. Come see Saving Mr. Banks and you’ll learn how Mary Poppins saved not only Mr. Banks, but also Walt Disney and P. L. Travers with a spoonful of sugar (and a few other tricks) and remember the power that imagination has to save us all.
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