Most film buffs know about the horrible time Francis Ford Coppola had making Apocalypse Now. Or that the near-disastrous production of guilty pleasure extraordinaire Waterworld included a set that sank into the Pacific Ocean. The reports coming from the sets of Titanic were troubling, though mostly forgotten after the film made history worldwide. It seems that most of the truly great movies (okay, maybe not Waterworld) survived nightmarish production histories. Not all of these behind the scenes accounts would make great movies. Saving Mr. Banks is proof of that.
Emma Thompson stars as P.L. Travers (sometimes referred to as “Pamela”), the author of Mary Poppins who held out 20 years before allowing Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) to adapt her book. Once she reluctantly gave in, Travers oversaw the making of the film. Her various complaints and artistic differences nearly killed the film. The making of Mary Poppins should make for a fun movie but two things prevent this seemingly easy feat from happening. One, Thompson is so loathsome as Travers that her anti-social behavior comes across as nearly psychotic.
The other central flaw, which cripples the film, is cutting back and forth from the scenes on the Disney studio lot to Travers’ painful childhood. We see her as a curly haired little girl, utterly in love with her father, played by Colin Farrell as a self-destructive alcoholic. This recurring portion of the movie is dull and unpleasant. We’re supposed to be touched by the young girl’s unfailing attachment to her disaster of a dad but these scenes are creepy. Rather than just a sustained flashback, the film keeps cutting away from the interesting 1960s section to scenes of Farrell’s public drunkenness, coughing up blood and yelling at his wife. It’s as depressing as it sounds.
Much is made of how Travers originally intended Mary Poppins to be a character who saves Mr. Banks, the father, and not the children. But this never comes across. We see the basis of the character, played as a dry oddball by Rachel Griffiths, but her connection to the story, as well as the importance to Travers’ personal history, is barely discernible. Seeing the “real” Poppins offers no payoff. Nanny McPhee was a better homage to Poppins than this.
Hanks is enjoyably showy as Disney and there a few good scenes at the end but this ambitious attempt at a Disney bio from his own company doesn’t work. It’s ironic that Travers complains that the Poppins filmmakers can’t balance the whimsy and darkness that she intended; this film has that exact same problem. Tonally, it feels like one of those adult skewering but ill-considered dramas the company released in the 80s–Something Wicked this Way Comes or Trench Coat. The attempt at a probing, emotionally complex movie from the company that gave us Beverly Hills Chihuahua is admirable but another studio without ties to Walt Disney should have attempted it.
The shameless company promos are nearly unbearable. I love the majority of Disney movies and treasure every trip I’ve ever made to Disneyland and Disneyworld, but this movie is just a crass commercial for itself. At one point, we see Travers begin to loosen up her stiff demeanor by cuddling with a large Mickey Mouse doll. At another, she dances wildly to the Poppins score. But my favorite what-were-they-thinking? moment is when she and a man dressed as Mickey Mouse walk arm-in-arm to the Poppins premiere.
This is The Americanization of Pamela, a portrait of how the magic of Disney allowed a stuffy European to remove the pole from her bum. The story may be true, but most of this movie feels like a giant crock.
Score: ** (1-5 Star Scale)