In a suitably star studded finale to this year’s BFI London Film Festival, John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks is the already hotly tipped film chronicling the partnership that brought one of Disney’s most loved characters, Mary Poppins, from page to screen and into our hearts. Come on, you can’t expect a review of a Disney film not to include at least some sentimentality?
But this idea of the benefits of sentimentality is precisely what drives Hancock’s surprisingly moving film, revealing the tensions behind the adored Disney picture. Albeit through a Disney filter, of course.
Twenty years since ‘Call-me-Walt’ Disney promised his daughter he would bring Ms Poppins to the big screen, the stern-faced and forthright author PL Travers finally caves and agrees to swap the cherry-blossom lined streets of London for the hazy, palm trees and perk of Los Angeles to meet Disney to discuss the film rights for her beloved Mary Poppins.
Arriving in the heat of Los Angeles, greeted by her personal chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), Travers is launched into the surreal world of Disney, from stuffed toys to unnecessary golf cart rides, to singing, endless luminous food stuffs and all that darn animation.
Much of the comedy resides in these cultural clashes as the lady in the tweed is faced with the slick, perma-smiled staff of Disney, namely the film’s screenwriter Don Da Gradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak).
From first hearing the chords of the film’s musical highlights such as Feed the Birds, to the creation of Mary Poppins’ sugar advocating catchphrase, the writer’s room scenes are bursting with gags for the Poppins fan. But it is the subtle moments where we see Travers’s veil begin to drop, a toe-tapping here, a wry smile of approval there, that brings us back to that infectious sentimentality, the kind that can creep under your skin and remain for so long you forgot it was ever there.
Interposed throughout with flashbacks to Travers’s childhood, barefoot and free in rural Australia yet coloured by her well-meaning but drunkard bank manager father (Colin Farrell) and her weary mother (Ruth Wilson) and the introduction of her no-nonsense aunt from the west (Rachel Griffiths) who comes to snap everyone into shape, we discover the unhappy reality behind the creation of her character. And in doing so, we learn why she is so afraid to let her go and pass her into the hands of strangers.
With Tom Hanks almost a mere sidekick, albeit a charming one, Emma Thompson is truly admirable as Travers, delivering a typically heart-warming performance of this proud yet vulnerable woman, complemented by perfect gentle comedy and compassion.
A homage not only to the inspiring Disney film itself, Saving Mr Banks is a touching reminder of the power of imagination for children and adults alike. No ‘cavorting and twinkling’ required.
Saving Mr Banks closes the 57th BFI London Film Festival, in partnership with American Express.