If you were a child in the late Fifties and early Sixties, it's likely you would have watched Walt Disney's 'Disneyland' on Sunday evenings*. It was the highlight of the week, especially when ‘Uncle Walt’ would take us to visit his cartoonists at work in their studio or lead us on a tour of the newly built theme-park bearing his name. I longed to visit that place and finally made it there as a thirty-something adult. To my delight, I could still feel the magic.
Even now, Walt Disney remains an iconic figure in my memory. That's why I was wary of seeing ‘Saving Mr. Banks’, the film about the gestation of the movie ‘Mary Poppins’. I couldn't imagine an actor, even one as good as Tom Hanks, capturing the spirit of the man. But I didn’t need to worry. Hanks inhabits the character of Uncle Walt so completely that I became a small child again, watching him on a Sunday night.
Speaking of Hanks, I saw him a month ago as Captain Phillips. What a stunning performance! I once referred to him as a modern-day Spencer Tracy, but he’s much more than that. Tracy was a great actor, but he was always Spencer Tracy playing someone else. Hanks, on the other hand, loses himself in every part he plays.
But enough of Tom Hanks. This film is the story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the 'Mary Poppins' books, and her reluctance to hand over the film rights to Walt Disney. We first meet the author as a dreamy child in turn-of-the-century Queensland. In the next scene she’s become a cantankerous middle-aged woman living in London, who can’t bear to part with the books she's written, for fear of them being trivialised. Over the course of the film we discover why she feels so strongly, the reasons lying deep within her Australian childhood. Like Tom Hanks as Disney, Emma Thompson’s performance as Mrs Travers illuminates the film. If she doesn’t win an Academy Award for this, I’ll be seriously disappointed.
The supporting actors are perfect: the versatile Paul Giamatti as Mrs Travers’ driver; Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, who composed so many memorable film scores; and English actress Ruth Wilson (who delivers a convincing Australian accent) as Travers’ mother. But the standout is Colin O’Farrell’s moving and nuanced portrayal of the quixotic and troubled father.
The final credits are an added bonus, featuring photographs and story-board illustrations from the Disney archives, as well as a tape recording of P.L. Travers in a script session. Among the credits I noticed an acknowledgment to Valerie Lawson’s book, ‘Mary Poppins She Wrote’. I've always enjoyed Lawson's insightful newspaper articles and I look forward to reading her biography of P. L. Travers.
I loved the sets in 'Saving Mr. Banks', the attention to detail, the way that 1961 Los Angeles came alive. My only issue with the film is the depiction of Queensland. If you’re going to get everything else right, why not film the Australian scenes in situ? The houses of early 1900s Maryborough are jarringly 'American gingerbread' in their architecture (in fact, they look like a street out of Disney's 'Pollyanna'). And WGH* tells me that we never had steam engines with ‘cattle catchers’.
But let's not get pernickety. This is a delightful and engrossing film and I commend it to you.
*6.30pm on TCN, now known as the Nine Network.
**WGH – World’s Greatest Husband. It says so on his coffee mug.
9 February, 2014