Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 2, 2014)
With 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, we take a look behind the scenes of 1964’s classic Mary Poppins. Much of the action takes place in 1961 as we meet Pamela “PL” Travers (Emma Thompson), the author behind Poppins. For years, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) tried to persuade her to sell the rights so he could adapt the story for the big screen, but Travers resisted.
However, due to severe financial issues, Travers finally relents – with strings attached. She wants to be involved in the production to ensure that Disney doesn’t take too many liberties with her property, so we follow her visit to California to view her interactions with Disney as well as the talent involved in the adaptation.
In addition to these sequences, we find flashbacks to Travers’ Australian childhood. Known as “Ginty” (Annie Rose Buckley), young Pamela adores her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), but he drinks too much and puts the family in persistent financial peril. We trace Pamela’s youth and her time at Disney to see how those two threads intertwine.
A film such as Banks runs into potential problems due to its desire to reach a mass audience. Film buffs would love to watch a nuts and bolts re-enactment of the creation of Poppins, but such a project seems unlikely to appeal to a broader crowd. Even though I fall into the group who’d like something devoted to the shooting of Poppins, I have to admit that sounds more like something meant as a Blu-ray bonus than a proper feature. Because of this, it makes sense that Banks digs deeper and delivers more than just an ambitious “making of” program.
Does this make Banks a satisfying character drama, though? Maybe. I think it works to a certain degree, but its desire to fulfill the psychological elements as well as the basic “behind the scenes of Poppins” can make it inconsistent.
Unsurprisingly, I enjoy the 1961 scenes the best, partly because of Thompson. She delivers a delightful performance, as she brings a tart sensibility to the notoriously prickly author but also manages to dig into the role’s deeper emotions in a seamless manner. Thompson gives us heart without sentimentality.
I also find it fun to watch the team put together Poppins. No, we don’t learn much that we don’t already know from that Blu-ray’s bonus materials, but I still think it’s entertaining to see those elements acted out for us. When we go through the creation of Poppins, Banks becomes pretty good.
I’m not as wild about the flashbacks, but I understand they’re crucial for the story being told. Was that necessarily the story I wanted to hear? Nope - as I mentioned, I would prefer a movie mostly about the making of Poppins with less psycho-emphasis on Travers and her past.
But that was the story they wanted to tell: Travers' history and how it impacted Poppins. This might not be an accurate historical telling, but that's what they chose to convey, and in that framework, the flashbacks seem essential. They make moments that seem inconsequential - like adult Travers' hatred of pears - into something more meaningful and allow us to see how her life influenced her book.
What they can’t do is undercut the movie’s relentless sentimentality. Banks flirts with darkness and cynicism but always winds up on the sunny side of the street, a tone not unexpected from a Disney film about a Disney film.
That doesn’t make Banks bad, but it does create some disappointment. Whereas one might anticipate that it would accentuate the positive, this does rob the movie of some impact. It becomes hard to take the drama especially seriously when everything gets such a happy-happy veneer.
This leaves Banks as an enjoyable but insubstantial experience. While it boasts good performances and can offer a delightful look at the Disney Studios circa the early 1960s, it only sporadically succeeds as a character drama.