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From the moment that east wind begins to blow, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers is both inspired and deliciously funny. As her chauffeur, played movingly by Paul Giamatti, comments on Hollywood’s sunny weather, Travers points out that the city smells “like chlorine and sweat.” When he remarks on the fantastic view from Hollywood’s hills, she grudgingly admits it’s nice, “if you like that sort of thing.” And what about the gigantic stuffed Mickey Mouse on her hotel bed? She carries him by the ear and indignantly plops him against the wall until he can “learn the art of subtlety.”
Forced by financial constraints to consider selling the movie rights to her Mary Poppins books to Walt Disney (played ingeniously by Tom Hanks), Travers’ collision with Disney’s fanatically hopeful world of “flim-flam” and pixie dust is laugh-out-loud funny. The hilarity only grows as she moves toward the fateful moment when she finally sets foot in Disney’s office. When a smiling Walt greets her with a hearty shoulder shake, endearingly calling her “Pamela” or “Pam,” she continually corrects him to keep him at a distance: “It’s Ms. Travers.”
Clearly, these two towering figures couldn’t be more ill-suited to share a room, much less a movie. Still, Walt presses on as wide-eyed and optimistic as ever, and his attempts to untangle the knots in Travers’ soul and bring Poppins to life become the driving force of the movie.
Alongside that drama is a series of flashbacks, painting Travers’ childhood relationship with her father, the real-life Mr. Banks. A devoted but flawed father, he comes across as a town drunk with ever a song on his lips, a gleam in his eye, and a whiskey flask in his pocket. Anyone who has known or loved a sinner will recognize the battle within her father to be the dad he wants to be, as well as Travers’ struggle to honor the man she loved, despite his flaws.
While this is a story about the making of the original Mary Poppins movie, beloved by children since its creation in 1964, the themes of this PG film make it clearly a movie for adults and mature teens. We see Travers’ father drinking himself to death, and the severe mental strain this puts on her mother. And Disney himself reveals abuse in his own past. (All reasons I was very glad I left my young Mary Poppins–lover at home.)
But like any great story—and this movie is truly great, as evidenced by the many reviewers who are mentioning it and Oscar in the same sentence—Saving Mr. Banks goes beyond the particular tragedies of its characters to show us something of ourselves and all of mankind. Director John Lee Hancock uses everything at his disposal—music, cinematography, sharp writing, and stellar acting—to pull the heartstrings tight and focus the mind on the story’s message.
And what is that message? In one flashback, Travers’ father teaches her that money and success in this world are “just an illusion, old girl.” As he swigs from his bottle, he sets his own rebellion of drink and imagination against the cruelty of life, telling her the men of the bank where he worked, along with the rest of the world, “can’t make us endure their reality.”
Likewise, in Travers and Disney, we see the familiar theme of a postmodern culture idolizing man-made pictures of redemption. However, viewers whose broken hearts have been ransomed by the King born in Bethlehem will likely hardly notice. For the salvation on display here points so movingly to a greater Wind, and behind Him, the King of Love, Who is even now rewriting my story and yours with a redemption far beyond all human imagination.