Other Media Review

Movie Review:  Saving Mr. Banks


Title: Saving Mr. Banks
Written By: Kelly and Sue Smith Marcel
Publication Info: Walt Disney Pictures 2013
Genre: Contemporary/Other

Saving Mr Banks - Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson walking with their shadows in the shape of mickey mouse and mary poppinsSaving Mister Banks is a Walt Disney Film about Walt Disney, so if you are expecting a hard-hitting expose, this is not it.  It makes Walt look as saintly as possible without actually putting a halo on him.  But it’s also a marvelous showcase for perfectly cast actors in the prime of their careers, and a thoughtful look at the roles fiction can play in revealing and healing our emotional wounds.

The first part of this review is a basic movie review but eventually I’ll let you know that there are mild spoilers ahead, and I’m going to be talking less about the movie than about the importance of happy endings and some alternate ways of viewing the movie, which has attracted quite a bit of controversy.  So if you are super spoiler-phobic just skip the last part – I’ll let you know when!

Let’s start with the cast, because this movie is all about the acting.  There’s some lovely cinematography, but basically this entire movie is just an excuse for a whole lot of actors to strut their stuff – which they do.  I like to picture copies of the script being wrapped up in bows and presented to the actors individually, as gifts. 

Emma Thompson as PL Travers - fierce curly hair, big glasses, looks unpleasant

“Here Emma Thompson, here’s a chance to be sharp and smart and kind of mean while also being vulnerable and secretly kind! 
Your Oscar nomination is in the mail!” 

Honestly, it’s a thrill just to sit back and let these people do their thing.  Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers is all sharp, brittle edges, cutting her way through life.  Tom Hank’s Walt Disney is all round and gentle, but of course you don’t become Walt Disney without being pretty persistent.

One of the nicest things about this movie is that most of the actors are middle aged or older, and we’ve been seeing them on screen since they were in their twenties.  In a culture that worships youth, it’s fascinating to see how much more interesting it is to watch Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson now than in their youth.  They were always great, but now the actors bring life experience and maturity to their parts.  Most of the attention goes to the two leads, Hanks and Thompson (honestly, just hand her the Oscar now to save time, OK?), but everyone is sublimely cast and they elevate the material from something that is frankly fairly soppy to something that is delightful and sometimes harrowing to watch.  Look at Ruth Wilson (Travers’ mother), who brings as much depth to her character as though the whole movie was about her, even though she’s only given something like five lines.  Look how Rachel Griffiths (The Aunt) drops her carpetbag onto the floor (here is a pic -warning, enormous jpg), and check out the unexpected steely look in Paul Giamatti’s eye when he forbids worrying about tomorrow (he plays Travers’ driver). 

Paul Giamatti - driver in Saving Mr Banks

These people Know How It Is Done.

This is a sweet movie, the kind you can take your Grandma to, although it would bore children to tears.  But it has real weight to it, and deep emotional impact, because it is about how we use fiction to reveal and heal our emotional scars.  There’s no romance in this film, but I think romance fans might like it very much, because of this message.  The movie has an A plot (Walt Disney tries to convince P.L. Travers to give him the rights to make Mary Poppins into a movie) and a B plot (flashbacks about Traver’s childhood with a charming but deeply self-destructive alcoholic father).  In the A plot, Travers fights against making Mary Poppins a cheerful character.  She particularly objects to the “spoonful of sugar” because Mary Poppins does not sugar coat things for children.  She trains them to face the hard world that lies ahead.  She also objects to the fact that the children’s fictional father, Mr. Banks, is portrayed so unsympathetically, and she maintains that Mary Poppins does NOT appear at Cherry Tree Lane to save the children.

So, Disney has to figure out who Mary Poppins does come to save, hence the B plot.  It’s easy for us to figure out because it’s in the title of the movie, but Disney is at a loss until he uncovers a little bit about Travers’ past life.  This leads to an exchange of dialogue that is totally fictional but deeply moving.  If you want the details to remain suspenseful, end your reading here!  Spoilers ahead!














In a beautiful but entirely fictional scene, Disney tells Travers about his own difficult childhood:

I love my life – it’s a miracle.  And I loved my daddy, boy, I loved him. But, there isn’t a day goes by where I don’t think of that little boy in the snow and old Elias with his fist and strap and I’m just so tired– I’m tired of remembering it that way. Aren’t you tired Mrs. Travers? We all have our tales but don’t you want to find a way to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn’t dictated by a past?

Although Travers has created a magical world of imagination, it represents gritty reality to her.  Mary Poppins shows the children hard truths, and fiction that reveals painful truths is important.  But Disney sees another role for fiction – that we can use fiction to write the endings that we wish our stories had, and thus heal our griefs. 

There are many reasons why people love romance as a genre, and there are many reasons why I love it.  One of my favorite things about romance is the promise that things will be OK.  In real life, even though my life is one of great happiness, I worry all the time, about everything from asteroids (Collisions!) to zebras (Endangered!).  Above all I worry about people who are suffering who I can’t save, and I grieve for people who I have lost.  So you can imagine my tearful response when, at the premiere of Mary Poppins, when Travers weeps because Mr. Banks has been fired, Disney leans over to her and whispers, “It’s all right, Mrs. Travers. It’s alright. Mr. Banks is going to be all right. I promise.”

First of all, in terms of the movie itself, it’s a powerful moment, because P.L. Travers’ father, the model for Mr. Banks, was not alright.  Not even her own Mary Poppins, a seemingly invincible aunt, could save him.  And although in real life Travers was never happy with the film, this scene in Saving Mister Banks is cathartic for the character and for the audience.

From the standpoint of someone like me who likes romance, this moment was touching and affirming.  We all know that things in life can be hard.  Even happy endings have tough parts.  But when you pick up a romance book, it says, “It’s alright…I promise”.  And that’s not trite or delusional.  It’s powerful and healing and freeing.  It’s a way of nurturing hope and it gives us something good to imagine and to aspire to.

I read a quote a few months ago and now I can’t find it anywhere.  If anyone can track it down, please let me know so I can give the proper credit.  Basically, it says that the most radical thing a writer can do to advance gay rights is to write happy endings for gay couples.  I would argue that this is also true for women and for other disenfranchised groups.  We need stories that reveal the hardships we have faced historically and that we continue to face today.  We need to be able to clearly see our past and our present.  But we also need hope and optimism.  If all of the stories end in doom, then we start to feel, well…doomed.  All of us need happy endings, not just those who have been historically disenfranchised, but I believe that the idea that you can and should aspire to happiness, and that it may actually be within your grasp, is a radical political concept to those populations who have always been instructed to settle.

What I hadn’t thought of before Saving Mister Banks is that in writing happy endings we can also rewrite our own stories.  I also had a charming alcoholic father who died early, and it was sometime during Plot B as I was sitting in the movie theater wallowing in PTSD, that I thought, “This ‘Daddy issues’ thing I have is exhausting.  Will I never be able to sit through a movie without discovering that it is accidentally about Dads and thereby becoming a basket case?” 

Sure enough, a few scenes later, there was Tom Hanks offering me an out.  My sad story about my alcoholic father who died is an important one and it’s one that deserves to be shared – if you live, or have lived, with an addict, you have suffered, and you are not alone (I encourage you to seek support – this link should take you to Al-Anon's website where you can find resources and a list of support group meetings).  But sometimes I forget that the story of how I loved and lost my father to alcoholism isn’t my WHOLE story.  It isn’t even my Dad’s whole story.  To say that maybe I can start telling different stories about my childhood isn’t to say that I should deny the impact of that loss, or that I should “snap out of” my grief.  It’s to say that maybe it’s OK to crack a window open and let in some light.

What Disney is saying to Travers is that we can use fiction not only to reveal our reality but to shape it.  There are a lot of things going on in this movie but for me, that aspect was the most interesting, and that aspect is why I think some of you would enjoy the film so much.  That, and the fact that Emma Thompson plays the smartest, and bitchiest, smart bitch of all time!  

Now, I'm grading the movie based on my experience of the movie, not the politics around the movie.  I found the movie, set aside from any non-fiction background, to be interesting and touching and powerful to watch – so an 'A'.  But boy howdy are there some interesting controversies surrounding the film.  See, in the movie, Emma Thompson weeps with joy because she loves the film version of Mary Poppins so very much and the magic of Disney has healed her emotional wounds.  But alas, in real life, P.L. Travers wept at the premier because she hated it.  Oh, she liked the money, and she got a heap of it, but she still hated the movie.  While the movie presents the making of the film Mary Poppins as sort of an ultimate tribute to fan fiction (Disney alludes to how much he loves the book), in real life there was more corporate juggernaughting going on and Travers was bitter forever.   

Back in 2005, The New Yorker published a great article about the life of P.L. Travers and her views on the movie.  Interestingly, although it points out that Travers never did like the movie, she also had rewritten her own story in the pages of Mary Poppins, a book in which the family is not broken as it is in the beginning of the film.  If you want to read the article online, here it is!  There's also some fun fact-checking at orlandoweekly.com.  

There's a passionate article on the sexist elements of the movie at laweekly.  Based on other things I've read about P.L. Travers, this article is off-base on some of its facts, but its case is still valid- it's disturbing that in a male dominated industry, we root against woman who is denied control over her work.  The Diamondback has a good critique as well, and focuses more on the sexism presented in the actual movie than in the distortion of Traver's real life (Travers needs Disney to swoop in and save her from her emotional problems in the film, which hardly does justice to any woman, fictional or actual).  

I think the most interesting movies are ones that can be viewed in many different ways.  Here's a few of the ways in which I've thought about the movie:

  • An enjoyable, entertaining film with tour de force performances by some of the best actors around today
  • A love story to fan fiction
  • A horrifying look at corporate bullying
  • A feminist saga in which a woman who has no weapons but her wits refuses to be coerced into relinquishing control of her work although she is, eventually, willing to share it voluntarily
  • A sexist saga which is yet another example of a historical woman being diminished in service to a man's success
  • A movie about the importance of happy endings in healing old wounds and helping people reach better lives

I think the most interesting thing about the movie is that all of these ways of looking at it are valid even though some of them are completely contradictory.  I can't wait for comments!

Have you seen Saving Mr. Banks? What did you think? 

Saving Mr. Banks is still in theatres, and you should be able to find showtimes at Moviefone or Fandango (US). 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Vasha says:

    Some timing—happy endings are something I’ve been ruminating on a lot today, but I don’t want to ramble too off topic in a comment. But I was just thinking that I actually prefer endings that are not perfectly happy because for a dose of optimism to raise my spirits I have to believe it. I’m such a cynic that I just shrug off “Everything will be excellent, guaranteed”, but “Most things will be better than they were, almost certainly” gives me the warm fuzzies.

  2. 2
    Phaenarete says:

    I don’t know the quote about happy futures in gay rights, but there was this really interesting thing on NPR the other day about writing our own happy endings… with a little boy, Frankenstein and pee. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/01/01/258674011/editing-your-lifes-stories-can-create-happier-endings

  3. 3
    Carol says:

    @ Phaenarete

    It was really was interesting and I was thinking exactly the same thing in response to some of CarrieS’ comments.

    It’s also worth noting that Emma Thompson, in a FreshAir interview, said that the crying at the opening was due to Travers experiencing a kind of catharsis, but not at all because she was liking the movie—-assuming I understood her remark correctly.

  4. 4
    library addict says:

    I saw this film on Christmas Eve and never got the impression that Emma Thompson’s PL Travers actually liked the movie. I thought it was clear she had issues with it.

    I also think this is very much Thompson’s movie. I know Hanks gets second billing, but he’s very much a supporting character. And while Disney is written mostly as Mr Good Guy, his faults are at least hinted at (including the fact the women were only employed as secretaries).

    It was nice to see Brad Whitford as well. I didn’t know he was part of the cast until he appeared on screen.

    I thought the film was enjoyable on multiple levels. But everyone should see it just to experience Emma Thompson’s performance and see that great acting is all about the subtleties not scene chewing.

  5. 5
    Jen says:

    I too really enjoyed this movie, and then after when I did some Googling on the actual PL Travers I felt a little more conflicted. I actually read a super interesting post about how the real story of PL Travers and Disney was an example of a lesbian (signs seem to point to Travers as being gay) having her work stolen from her and twisted into something she didn’t want:


    It raises issues of an artists’ right to their work and how women and minority creators frequently have their work corrupted. I can absolutely see that perspective, and I’m torn about whether the great story you highlighted (which is exactly how I saw it on first viewing) can be separated from the terrible tradition of stealing the work of gay people, women,

    But then, as I said, I really liked the movie. I loved the idea that fiction can retell a story. Not everything HAS to (or even should) be hard hitting realism, and I think there’s value in that.

  6. 6
    CarrieS says:

    ooops – important typo – in the description of the lattices article, I say that it’s disturbing that we root for a woman who is denied control of her work – what the article actually says is that it’s disturbing that we root AGAINST this woman.  As viewers, whether we like PL or not, we all want the movie to get made.  I think I can go in and fix this but if you read an early version of this review, so sorry about my typo which totally changes the meaning of the article :)

    Some biographical stuff just for fun and also context: 

    Re Travers sexuality – she seems to have been bisexual.  She had many affairs with men and a long term relationship with a woman that is largely assumed to have been a romantic one based on conversations PL had with an about her.  At the time she visited Disneyland, she was single. 

    She was also a parent.  She adopted an infant (one of a set of twins, which is a fascinating and appalling story if you read up on it).  Some people have criticized the film for erasing her experiences as a mother.  If I have my dates correct, and I’m not sure I do, I thought her comments about motherhood in the film made sense.  When asked if she has children she says something like, “Not really, but..” and then is interrupted, and then she makes several comments about how hard motherhood is.  I assumed this was a hint that she had an estranged adult child, although critics who saw the movie mostly interpreted it as meaning that she had no kids.  I was right – at that time in her life, her son was having problems with substance abuse and was in and out of jail.  He was bitterly estranged from PL as an adult and sadly her grandchildren reported “She died not loving anyone and no one loving her “.  So she does seem to have been a prickly person.

  7. 7
    CarrieS says:

    @Phaenerate – just read the nor story, loved it! Thanks for sharing it!

  8. 8
    Jules says:

    I saw this movie with my family on Christmas and thought it was an excellent movie. I went in with the knowledge that PL Travers did not like how Mary Poppins turned out and that is really all I knew. I agree with some of the other commenters and I took the ending as Travers crying because she hates it and is emotionally overwhelmed and Disney thinking that she is crying just because of the latter.

    Speaking of Disney, I think Hanks did a great job of making him not just a jolly guy that we see on The Wonderful World of Disney reruns, but someone who you can tell isn’t used to getting told no. Like he had that Disney charm but also that Disney determination to use that charm to meet his end game. I still thought the portrayal was excellent.

    What made this movie A territory for me were the flashbacks and how they coincided with the main move. Holy cow, who thought Colin Farrell could put me into emotional havoc like he did! I was near tears quite a few times in no small part due to his excellent performance. I felt it tug at my heart quite a bit.

    Overall, I think it was a great movie that wasn’t as pro-Disney as it could have been. I read that the screenplay was actually written by a third party and once they had it all done went to Disney for permission to use Walt and they read it and gave the ok. They had one stipulation which was that Walt never smoke on camera since he made such pains to never do such in his life. (Hence why we have the scene with Hanks snuffing out his cigarette and not puffing on it). So I heard anyway that Disney was only involved with the distribution not so much the production.

    I really liked it and I thought it had a good balance between history and making a good movie magic :)

    (end wall’o’text)

  9. 9
    Nifty says:

    I went to see this movie New Year’s Eve with a friend at her request.  I wasn’t opposed to seeing it, but it wasn’t on my list.  I have to say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed it!  Fabulous acting, without a doubt, and emotionally impactful for me.  I didn’t give it as much thought as the reviewer did, but I DEFINITELY felt the poignancy of Plot B and I got teary several times, and the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” scene had me feeling that laughter-through-tears emotion. 

    Regarding the premier of the movie, my take was that Travers was crying for catharsis, as Emma Thompson suggested in her interview, or for seeing a sort of redemption of her father on screen.  (In a way, I loved Travers Goff.  He seemed like an amazing man in so many ways.  He loved his daughter deeply, loved her imagination and creativity.  He struck me, in a way, as a man out of time:  a deeply creative person forced into a conventional mold.  I’m not excusing his alcoholism—I, too, grew up with an alcoholic father, and I know the long-lasting damage of that disease—but I felt some sadness for him.  I couldn’t watch the one scene at that “country fair” or whatever it was, when he gave the speech.  I put my fingers in my ears and covered my eyes.  Just couldn’t bear to see what I knew was going to happen.)

  10. 10
    RevMelinda says:

    Thank you CarrieS for such a thoughtful and nuanced review. I saw the movie recently and found it a really marvelous piece of movie-making. I remember telling my (aspiring actress) daughter afterwards that it’s a wonderful example of how great actors can transform even tiny bit parts and make them revelatory. Not to mention Thompson and Hanks who are clearly at the top of their game. I agree that there are some clearly problematic interpretations of the movie—including the “woman being deprived of her work by a male-dominated culture” angle, a valid critique—but I must admit that I didn’t find that angle to be part of my experience of the movie as it unfolded. Instead, I saw and loved the “clash of culture” aspect of the movie and the brief moments of shared understanding that are achieved between the British Travers and the American movie-makers as they struggle to an acceptable resolution. Like you, CarrieS, the concept of “rewriting our stories with better endings” was a transforming concept for me, and one that resonated powerfully. I’m not sure what to do with that thought—I’m going to have to think on it for a while. I will say that although I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic family (just an angry, dysfunctional one), I know in my heart that my sanity (or maybe my life?) was saved by the power of storytelling. All those sappy TV shows from my childhood—the Brady Bunch, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, Happy Days, and their ilk—were like beacons of hope for me. Watching them, I could imagine being part of a loving and supportive family and I could hope that I could create a future in which that would be my reality. In “Saving Mr. Banks” I came to see Disney and Travers not only rewriting their own stories, but using their experiences to create art by which they could throw out a similar kind of lifeline to other “lost children” like themselves—children like me. Thanks again CarrieS for a great review!

  11. 11
    Trix says:

    PL Travers was Australian, not English, although she ended up spending most of her life in Britain. There’s a whole other narrative on her life there, in terms of colonials who felt the need to become even more English than the English.

    I have to disagree on the ode to fanfic, though. I love good fanfic, which doesn’t fundamentally change the characters. The Mary Poppins movie was too schmaltzy and lost the “magic” of the books for me. While Julie Andrews was wonderful, I wish Disney had come up with a screenplay of the movie they made, left off the Poppins name and been done with it.

    Getting back to Pamela Travers, it’s interesting how someone who’d been through a hard life and was apparently embittered somewhat had created those gorgeous books. I also admired how she much later rewrote a section of the first book to remove some stereotypically quasi-racist characters, and seamlessly replace them with others that blended into the story perfectly. A woman of interesting contrasts.

  12. 12
    ppyajunebug says:

    I put this movie in the column “I Loved It In Spite Of Its Many Problems”.  I went to go see it with my mom, who raised me on the Mary Poppins movie (I found my own way to the books when I was around 8 or so).  As a kid, I never had any trouble dissociating the book!Mary from the movie!Mary, probably because the two versions are so completely different. 

    More than anything, this movie made me really want to go back and re-watch the movie AND re-read the books.  I also want to find my way to a good PL Travers biography so I can read the books with that information in mind. 

    This was a fantastic review Carrie, and congrats on the book!!!!

  13. 13
    DarienG says:

    I loved the movie too. Love the little moments the director gave each of those wonderful actors!!

    One of the points that came through for me was also that P.L. Travers’ insistence on her vision made it a better story, and a better movie. For example, it was her arguing that the father wasn’t bad, or mean, that made them rewrite the ending to include the kite scene. Without her input (however prickly) the movie would not have been as good as it is. Yes, they tried to dismiss her, and often ended up ignoring her input, but she had a definite influence on the end product.

  14. 14
    Sasha says:

    First off, I have to say I think they did a lousy job marketing this movie.  I think they had no clear idea what to do.  DH had thought my son might enjoy it, when in fact this wasn’t a child oriented movie at all. 

    I saw this on a date night with hubby- mostly because it was the movie that fit into the time period we had respite -(damn, there are some long movies out there right now!)
    I wasn’t opposed to seeing it- was mildly interested, but it wasn’t high on my list.

    But, I ended up really liking it- the casting was spot on.  And I agree about the catharsis vs. her loving the movie.  The way they interwove the past and present was beautiful.

    I ended up crying multiple times, and that’s not like me!

  15. 15
    Karin says:

    It does seem like a difficult movie to market. And I will have to overcome my prejudices against Walt Disney to see him portrayed as a nice guy by Tom Hanks. I’m talking about Walt Disney the red-baiter, strike breaker and big fan of Leni Reifenstahl. Funny that all the controversy is about the portrayal of Travers, and not him.

  16. 16
    JadaM says:

    Excellent review and so much food for thought! So much, in fact, that I won’t tl;dr here but might write my own blog post on the film.  Thanks for the inspiration!

    @Karin – There is definitely controversy about Disney’s portrayal in the film.  You might enjoy Meryl Streep’s speech honoring Emma Thompson at the National Board of Review gala: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2014/01/meryl-streep-emma-thompson-best-speech-ever

    I agree Travers wasn’t crying because she liked the film. To me, she was crying in catharsis.  This is a woman who was uncomfortable with emotions and other people (witness the bar scene). So sitting in a dark movie theater, with everyone’s eyes on the screen and not on her, at the culmination of such a difficult project, finally gave her an outlet.  And maybe there were a few tears of rage at the animated penguins…and at Disney for, once again, misunderstanding her with his patronizing tap on her shoulder.

  17. 17
    Katie D. says:

    As an FYI, the Library of Congress unearthed a television interview of PL Travers from 1966 and have posted it to their blog:


  18. 18
    etv13 says:

    From the New Yorker aritcle:  “she owned five percent of the gross; the movie made her rich.”  It does a disservice to everyone involved, including P.L. Travers, to suggest that Disney “stole” her work from her.  She wasn’t naive or foolish or lacking in gumption; she was an accomplished writer and journalist who had had and rejected other offers (e.g., from Samuel Goldwyn) and who was respected by the likes of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.  Let’s not patronize her (or anyone else) in the name of standing up for lesbians, bisexuals, or women.

  19. 19
    library addict says:

    I can understand the film not getting a nomination for best picture (though I liked it much more than some that did). But Emma Thompson not getting one for best actress makes me sad :(

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