Mary Poppins is an all time classic film beloved by adults and children around the world, but it’s journey to the screen took over 20 years and the finished product wasn’t loved by the author of the book upon which it was based. Saving Mr Banks tells the story of the final stage of the jounrey from book to screen, with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) pulling out all the stops to convince PL Travers (Emma Thomson) to sell him the rights to her story. It is a lovely film set around a brilliant performance from Thomson but being a product of Disney films, there are some questions that have to be asked about how truthful it is, specifically with regard to the final scene.
Before we get on to that, and the aspect of the story that I found of particular interest, I want to look at the story a little more. There are two strands which run throughout the film, the first concerning Disney’s attempts to buy the rights from Mrs Travers, and the second concerning Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia and her relationship with her alcoholic father. I understand the narrative need for the sequences in Australia but unfortunately the film doesn’t quite find the right balance in cutting between these sections meaning that the moment you leave Thomson you and yourself aching to get back to her part of the story and losing the impact of the earlier section. This could, in part, be due to the fact that Thomson’s performance is so strong that it casts a shadow when she’s not on screen, but I think it’s also down to the fact that the tone between sections differs wildly. Travers’ tut-tutting school-ma’am attitude has a lightness of touch that keeps a smile constantly on the lips, while the Australian sequences are melancholy and lack the lightness of touch and sparkle. While this is appropriate for the aspect of the subject these sections examine, it does mean they don’t fit the tone of the rest of the film, leaving an ultimately uneven experience.
Now, what interests me most is what this says about an author’s ownership of the story and characters. For me, the film portrays Travers’ wariness about letting someone else take control of her characters as being almost petty. Disney is a caring man who would never do any harm to her beloved Mary Poppins, and of course we, the audience, all know that an all-time great film will be the result. But of course that presents an unfair picture. What of all the good, personal novels that are ruined by Hollywood? Without the benefit of hindsight, how would Travers know what fate would befall her character? (And that’s setting aside the fact that she didn’t like what was done with the film ultimately). Look at, for example, The Golden Compass, the adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. A film which tore the heart out of the source material. Or as Travers’ herself says in Saving Mr Banks, “Poor AA Milne”, whose Winnie the Pooh lost his soul at Disney’s hands.
The film seems to be saying that, while it understands her reluctance to sell, ultimately that is the right thing to do, which leads to the (is it or isn’t it) troubling final scene. This may be a spoiler, so you have been warned. Travers attends the premier of the film and, when it reaches its conclusion with Let’s Go Fly A Kite, a song which is given some emotional resonance earlier, Travers is shown crying. While she says “I hate cartoons” by way of explanation, the implication is that she has been drawn in and won over by what she has seen on screen and it has exorcised some long held demons for her.
I completely understand and accept this as a narrative device for telling the story, and I have no issue with true stories being tweaked to make them fit a narrative arc – it can be a necessary evil to make the story resonate – but I feel here the film is trying to have its cake and eat it. “She says she hates it” defenders can say and baldly, on the page of the script, that is true, but that is not what is shown on screen. I know I am not the only one to have drawn these conclusions from the way this scene is shot.
As I say, I don’t think, ultimately, this matters, but I do think an acknowledgement needs to be made somewhere. The story isn’t well known enough for it to outlive the film – this will, no doubt, become the definitive version, and that can be troubling. Hopefully the bluray edition will feature some documentary evidence which tells the *real* true story as well.
Film length: 2hrs 5 minutes – Fells like: 1 hour 50 mins