Real-life stories are rarely as satisfying as made-up ones. This is, of course, a well-known fact. Life has a pesky habit of rejecting the basic tenets of any successful narrative, from plot and pacing to character.
Hardly surprising, then, that Disney’s 2013 film, Saving Mr. Banks, leans heavily to the side of fiction, rejecting the realities of life in an effort to turn the real story of the author P.L. Travers’ work with the folks at Disney to produce a movie version of her beloved book, Mary Poppins, into something lucrative.
As has been pointed out, inaccuracies (or, rather, blatant fictions) are rife in Saving Mr. Banks. Because it’s Disney, and because it’s the sort of film that parents need to be able to watch with their kids, there’s very little complexity to this movie.P.L. Travers was, by all accounts, not the easiest person to get along with. She was unconventional and prickly, cagey about her childhood and protective of her work. But Saving Mr. Banks takes her at-times difficult attitude and turns her into a monster of conventionality and the pinnacle of rudeness.
She is a stereotype of Britishness, from her impeccable English accent to her carefully tailored tweed suits. She clashes again and again with the jovial Walt Disney, who calls everyone by their first names and is, in general, about two steps away from being the sort of character a child might suspect of being magical. Again, hardly surprising, considering who produced this film.
The movie plays out in typical Taming of the Shrew fashion, with Tom Hanks’ cheerful Disney butting heads with Emma Thompson’s uptight Travers, gradually chipping away at her hard exterior until it is finally revealed that she reason she is so uptight to begin with is, surprise surprise, Daddy Issues. Freud would probably have leapt into the air and clicked his heels at this. What’s more, Travers’ Daddy Issues are miraculously erased once another man comes along and solves them forever, with just a quick wave of his magic Disney wand (no, Dr Freud, not like that). Anybody else who is beginning to feel that their intelligence is being wilfully insulted – you’re not alone.
One thing I will say for the movie: Ruth Wilson’s accent is impeccable. The English actress (perhaps best known for her 2006 role as Jane Eyre) plays Travers’ mother, Margaret Goff. And has such a perfect Australian accent that it left me reaching for the computer to check if she actually was Australian.
And this is pretty much the movie in a nutshell. It says a lot about a film, I think, when the most memorable part of it is the excellent voice work by an actor in a minor role.
Personally, I think that for Disney to even consider making this film is a little dishonest; they have too vested an interest to actually make an even semi-truthful biopic. And considering the fact that it was released to coincide with the anniversary of Mary Poppins, the whole thing rather feels like an incredibly expensive marketing exercise, a way to sell more Mary Poppins DVDs and make sure everyone’s talking about it.
Author biopics are tricky, and children’s author biopics are perhaps the trickiest of all. Because of the author’s output, any film about them has to be suitable for the people who actually read their books (viz., children). But then authors, for all that we imagine them to be shiny asexual magicians with a typewriter and a pen, were actually real, often messy people. It does them no justice to gloss over their lives, least of all as a marketing ploy. They may not make for the most satisfying stories ever, but then real author stories are all the more compelling for that.
All in all, I’d say that it would take a lot more than just a spoonful of sugar to make this particular movie go down.
Rating: 2.5 Stars