​Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) takes a very
reluctant PL Travers (Emma Thompson) on a
tour of Disneyland.
 

Saving Mr Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, is focussed on the fortnight PL Travers spent at the Disney studios in 1961, ostensibly collaborating on the screenplay of her book Mary Poppins, but actually being unreservedly critical and obstructive.

Travers (a stellar performance by Emma Thompson) needed the money Disney was offering if she signed over the screen rights to the book, but could not bring herself to compromise on changes to the characters or the settings, and was set like stone against any use of animation.

Until she signed, she held the whip hand, and Disney (portrayed with great charm by Tom Hanks),  his hapless screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) had to swallow her ascerbic comments and try to placate her. In these very amusing scenes it is hard not to sympathise with the Hollywood team. Yes, it is understandable that Travers wants to maintain the integrity of her book, but she is formal, condescending to the point of rudeness, and totally unresponsive to all friendly overtures.

The cleverness of the film is its interweaving of these scenes of creative conflict with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Queensland. The darling of Travers Gough, her mercurial, fascinating father (Colin Farrell), the little girl was enchanted by his whimsy and rejection of routine, but his descent into alcoholism brought his young wife to despair and left his daughter bitterly disillusioned.

Through the flashbacks we begin to understand the emotional baggage carried by the adult Travers and why she is now so unbendingly opposed to fantasy – even though her Poppins books were based on it.

Pledged to keep a promise made to his daughters that the film will be made, Disney brings genuine compassion as well as a mogul’s determination to finding the key which will unlock Travers’ defences.

There have been criticisms that Saving Mr Banks does not tell the whole story about Travers (as a family-friendly Disney release, it ignores her unusual sex life), but why should it? It does not claim to be an accurate biography, although the Hollywood scenes are certainly based on the tapes Travers insisted be made at the time. Although the scenario it puts forward, with the character of Mr Banks as a symbol for Travers Goff, serves beautifully as the film’s hinge for linking past and present, it may not be true.

Travers, who even though she eventually agreed to the making of Mary Poppins never liked it, would probably say that Saving Mr Banks makes all kinds of unsubstantiated assumptions, while Disney – were he alive to see it – would say it contained artistic truth – that is, it works splendidly as entertainment.

He would have a strong argument. Blending comedy and pathos, Saving Mr Banks ultimately engages our sympathy both for the child Travers was and the woman she became. And if an extra spoonful of sugar sweetened the film’s ending, who could be churlish enough to raise an objection?
 
 

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