Is the creative spark forged in the fires of passion or adversity? Saving Mr. Banks, the story of the making of Mary Poppins, tries to answer this question, and comes down somewhere between the two. It argues it was the unique passion of those at Disney coupled with the adversity-filled childhood of Poppins author P.L. Travers that gave birth to one of cinema’s classic musicals.
Emma Thompson plays Travers as a wound woman. You feel her bristle at the slightest change in the wind, and fully petrify at human interaction. She insults the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), composers of Poppins infinitely hummable songs. She ridicules her limo driver (Paul Giamatti), no matter his approach to befriending her. She even scoffs and mocks Mickey Mouse to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) himself. Still, if she were simply a crone we wouldn’t care, but the tautness felt at every moment belies a deeper truth than we first see.
That truth is that Travers suffered a tragic childhood. Some critics have questioned the accuracy of her portrayal here, but screenwriter Kelly Marcel insists the depiction is fair. I’ll leave that to historians, but these Shakespeare in Love type stories always run the risk of being too cute with the genesis of beloved details of their protagonists’ creations. Here it works because the flashbacks to Travers’ childhood are not the saccharine schmaltz that trailers might lead you to expect. The tragedy of her childhood is not one instance, but more a way of being. By the time the final revelation has been made, we empathize with Thompson’s adult Tarvers, even though we love Hanks’ Disney.
Therein lies the key to the success of this film. Yes, it does paint Disney and his employees as wonderfully earnest, kind, and creative types. Yes, this does avoid some of the nastier details of Disney’s legacy. But then, the film isn’t really about Disney. He’s at best a supporting character. This is Travers’ story that she slowly becomes the hero of. The bricks were laid in place by history, but the caulk that tells us not that she cried, but why is what makes this film work. It’s the answer not that we hope for, but that Travers as a character has earned.
It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the rest of the film go down. And it is indeed in a delightful way.