One of the finest movies at the ongoing Dubai International Film Festival, John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks is superb on the cast front with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, as it is on its narrative style and substance that in a nutshell is all about the fight between words and visuals, between two desperate people. The movie tells us all about the dramatic developments before the great classic, Mary Poppins, got made. A lot many of us would remember that as a work that took us on a flight of fancy with Mary and her Penguins.
The woman who wrote the magical piece of fiction called Mary Poppins which mesmerised children for generations, P.L Travers, was a snooty, egocentric writer who looked down up Americans and did not want to sell film rights to Walt Disney. But the “mouse man” was dying to get his hands on the book, for he had promised his little daughters he would get their favourite Poppins’ characters dancing and flying on the screen.
For 20 years, Travers said no, nothing doing. The little girls were no longer little, and as Disney was getting more and more despairing, Travers found herself in the same boat. Her manager warned her that she was financially bankrupt and would not even have a house to call home if she did not sell Mary Poppins to Walt Disney. Now she was as distressed as Disney, only that the two were frantic about different things: he about the promise he was longing to keep, and she about the roof she did not want to let go. Or fly off, should I say.
So Travers travelled to Hollywood determined to give Mr Disney and the studio guys the hardest time of their lives. And she did that of course. Saving Mr Banks takes us back to 1906 Australia, to the impoverished family of a suicidal mother and an alcoholic banker father. Travers is their little daughter, kind and lovely, who grows up into the writer of Mary Poppins. And Hancock keeps us riveted to the screen as he takes us back and forth, between Travers the adorable little girl and Travers the extraordinarily difficult woman. Hanks as Walt Disney and Thompson as Travers admirably help the narration glide almost with magical precision letting us peep, though, mostly into her world. We never see Disney’s daughters and this economy of narration helps retain the focus on the “fight”, if I may call it so.
However, Saving Mr Banks is no serious, sombre boardroom kind of boredom with men in grey suits and women in black dresses getting down to hard negotiations. Even as Travers plunges into a discussion of her contract with the Disney boys, there is music and mirth with the guys bursting into songs from Mary Poppins – all, of course, to impress the lady of steel who will not let the molten in her melt so easily.
Saving Mr Banks is delightfully anecdotal and there are truly some hilarious scenes as when Thompson’s Travers walks into her Beverley Hills hotel to find her room full of Disney toys. She is furious, and pushes each one of them into the cupboard. But one night as she lies on her bed, cold and lonely, she picks a stuffed toy and goes to sleep cuddled with it. There are several scenes in the Disney studio as she helps with putting together the script that are witty to a viewer -- not quite though to the guys working with her. She drives them crazy. “Are you sure Mr Disney can train real penguins to dance” she once asks. “No, no”, says a studio hand. “We will use animated birds” and that is enough to send Travers flying away.
Interspersed with all these are those torturous memories from Travers’ childhood, and the movie smoothly pans from one to the other. There is no confusion whatsoever. Yes, Mary Poppins with that great star and singing sensation, Julie Andrews, was a grand classic, and Saving Mr Banks may not be able to get too close to the allure of spoonful of sugar. Perhaps, it dare not.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 10 Dubai International Film Festival)