Saving Mr. Banks tells two stories. The first story, set in Los Angeles, circa 1961, tells the story of Walt Disney attempting yet again to persuade the author of his daughters’ beloved Mary Poppins novels, P.L. Travers, to grant him the rights to turn the story into a major motion picture. He’s been trying for twenty years, and Travers is as adamantly against the idea as she always has been, except this time her agent has told her that she has little choice, as she desperately needs the money.
So Travers grudgingly leaves her home in London and travels to Los Angeles, where she conflicts with each person she meets: her driver Ralph (a fictional character, played so perfectly and sweetly by Paul Giamatti) who can’t get her name quite right (although she later admits to him that he is the only American that she liked), brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, who are composing the songs for the tentative (although they do not yet know that it is tentative) film adaptation, screenwriter Don DaGradi, and the man himself, Walt Disney. Each of these characters is cheerful, friendly, enthusiastic, and excited to meet Mrs. Travers–until they actually meet Mrs. Travers, who is prickly, stubborn, and demanding. The conflict between the two dynamics creates frustration and comedy and takes the audience inside the creative process and the difficulties of translating a story, so precious and dear to its creator, to the screen.
The second–and, I might argue, more important and interesting–story gives the audience some insight into why Travers is so difficult and possessive of her story and her characters (who, she tells Disney, are like family to her). It is the story of Travers’ childhood in Australia, focusing on her relationship with her father, sublimely portrayed by Colin Farrell. Through the eyes of young Travers, we see the intense adoration and love she had for her father, who had a profound effect on her and her creation, from his warning to her to not be swayed and ruled by money to his love of the imaginary and magical. Through her eyes, we see her father struggle to maintain a respectable job to support his family, whom he loves dearly, and battle alcoholism. Through her eyes, we see the excitement when her father comes early from work, and we see the shocked horror when her father, struggling to simply stand up straight, cannot even remember how old she is. And we see the eagerness in her eyes as she searches for her father’s “medicine” that she knows he needs and hopes will make him better and will ultimately save him.
Woven together, these stories make an extraordinary, heartwarming, tear-jerking film. The cast is superb; Emma Thompson allows Travers to be unfriendly and difficult while also expressing a sadness in her eyes that lets the audience know that she’s experienced her share of sadness and disappointment. The production re-creates the times and places so well. The script is well-crafted and tells the story beautifully. Maybe it doesn’t tell us every detail or even all of the story but it certainly captures its spirit–the spirit of a little girl who desperately loves her father and wants to save him but cannot and as an adult cannot bear to “let him down again” by letting go of her work and putting it into the hands of men she fears will warp and destroy it and its characters, especially Mr. Banks. It is a beautiful, wonderful film. Do yourself a favor and see it.