Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is a comedy-drama, directed by John Lee Hancock, about writer P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins novels. The film focuses on the 2-week long period where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), and his production crew, persuade Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the screen rights to her novels. The film parallels Travers’ time in Los Angeles with flashbacks of her childhood, growing up with her imaginative yet alcoholic father. The various flashbacks unravel the mystery of how the young and free-spirited Helen Goff/Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) transformed into the cold and rigid P.L. Travers.
Emma Thompson excellently portrays the stern and unyielding Mrs. Travers. Travers is a character burdened by decades of guilt and resentment, choosing to express herself through concise diction, appropriate gestures and dress, and through her books. Thompson delivers every line masterfully, strikingly similar to the recording played during the film’s credits of an actual session with P.L. Travers and the Disney production crew. Thompson’s stringent performance throughout the majority of the film makes those few moments where Travers lets down her guard that more moving. Her soft moments truly contrasted from her many hard moments. Travers an austere character, but the film’s care with her childhood story arc allows her to be a sympathetic character, despite her harshness. The audience wants to find out what has made her so firm and wants her to find peace.
The cast is delightful. Disney’s production crew is a bubbly and optimistic group of people — who really have to their optimism put to the ultimate test. Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, and Melanie Paxson give spirited performances. Their characters in general are happy Disney employees who have to go the extra mile to appease the difficult Mrs. Travers.
The film is named for Mr. Banks, the father character in Travers’ novels. As far as the production crew knows, Mary Poppins comes to care for and save the children, but the flashbacks into Travers’ childhood prove that there is a greater purpose for her presence. Mary Poppins was inspired by Ginty’s Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who came at the lowest point in her childhood to fix “everything”. She succeeds in almost everything, but she was not able to save Ginty’s sick father (Colin Farrell). Aunt Ellie’s failure stays with Ginty as she grows up. Mary Poppins comes to save the children’s father, illustrated in touching scene in the film where the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” is born.
This delightful and moving film defies multiple expectations, the most important of which is Travers’ transformation. The film is not about forgiving herself. She does not need to save herself. The film is about forgiving her father, forgiving her aunt, forgiving Mary Poppins for not saving her father.