I don’t remember Mary Poppins very well. What I remember the best are the songs, happy and catchy tunes that stick with a person well into his adulthood. “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”– I remember them all fondly. But it wasn’t till I saw Saving Mr. Banks that I realized I didn’t understand why those songs were important in Mary Poppins. I’m not sure if the movie’s themes were lost on me as a child, but I certainly didn’t associate those songs with serious matters. Saving Mr. Banks does a good job of reminding you why Mary Poppins was such a good, and meaningful, movie. If I can say anything positive about Saving Mr. Banks without reservations, it’s that it made me want to see Mary Poppins again.
It’s faint praise, but it’s probably all I can muster at this point. Saving Mr. Banks does have its delights, and most of them are the performances. Emma Thompson walks an incredibly thin tightrope between charmingly rude and annoyingly selfish as P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. She manages to toe the line wonderfully from start to finish. Tom Hanks is amusing and feisty as Walt Disney, trying against all hope to convince Travers to sign the rights to her books over to him so they can make the movie. The production team Disney has hired for the movie consists of screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriter brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), and Travers also interacts often with the driver Disney has hired for her, played by Paul Giamatti. They’re all fun performances to watch; the whole cast should be lauded.
But the rest of the movie should not. I’m sure the screenwriters did their research and gave a mostly accurate depiction of Travers and this experience. But the screenplay is dishonest on a fundamental level, shoehorning in connections to Travers’s childhood traumas in order to seemingly explain why she’s so rude. I don’t mind them drawing the connections, but they are executed so clumsily, they take away from what could have been a rich biopic. There are promising themes involved here: the power of art to provide catharsis, the joy of music. So it’s a shame that Disney (the studio, not the man) felt they had to explain why they were ultimately in the right and Travers wasn’t. If they had just leaned on these great performers, this would have been a movie worth seeing.