“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” – C.S. Lewis
P.L. Travers’ book series about a flying English nanny were being forgotten. The books are still remembered by many, including Walt Disney himself, but by the 60’s they were something left to gather dust on bookshelves. To make the nanny fly again meant essentially betraying the very character that preserved something from the writer’s childhood. Travers unwillingness to forgive a real-life character written in to her stories might have ended Mary Poppins’ legacy.
That Mary Poppins is based on a real person is divulged in the movie trailer for Saving Mr. Banks and it needs to be. This tidbit is the only thing that saves the movie from coming across as 100% Hallmark-quality fluff. Questions of how real history has been kept hidden in the fictional re-telling, why and which character needs forgiveness is what makes the film actually work, even if it takes most of the film to finally get to the answer.
The reason so much of the runtime is spent on the conflict between Disney’s romaticism and Travers’ realism, is because there is some un-riddeling to be done on the part of the former in order to breathe a blend of live-action and animated life into the early 1900s nanny.
Flashbacks do the heavy lifting when it comes to reveals and are interwoven throughout the story from beginning to end. For this reason, the role of young Travers’ and her father are essential, as they are the only thing that shows the audience what Marry Poppins means to the adult P.L. Travers, aside from the predictably solid performance of Emma Thompson (who really shines in the second and third acts). Casting Colin Farrell as the father was a choice that paid off in spades. He plays the role wonderfully, and has an excellent chemistry with actress Annie Rose Buckley, who plays his daughter.
The father has astonishing energy. He is able to keep up with his children in all their adventures, which he himself creates as easily, if not better than any of them. He also relies heavily on drinking to deal with the stresses and monotony of every day life, encouraging his daughter to keep dreaming and never live in the reality of the people who spend their lives working for money.
All this is somewhat cliché, but it is shown with subtlety and the memories that haunt Mrs. Travers gradually reveal her buried fears. They also compliment the purpose behind Walt’s fascination with fantasy, which Mrs. Travers felt violated the character she loved so much.
The trouble is, all these touching reveals are only brought to life in the third act, something that couldn’t be avoided after the filmmakers decided to draw out the conflict through a kind of mystery. Everybody loves a good mystery, but it took some time to get to the real story behind the real Mary Poppins: a little girl whose heart had been broken by a father whom she adored, who caused deep pain which introduced the nanny into her life.
The real story was not a fairy-tale ending. So the question is why did the authoress allow Disney to re-write history? The way Saving Mr. Banks answers this question is the climax of the movie and its strongest point. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, there is more to some fairy tales than song and dance, which is why we remember them so well.
overall rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images