Spoonful of Sugar

‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Is This Oscar Season’s Breath of Fresh Air

2013’s awards contenders are bleak, brutal, and hard to watch. So thank Disney for this charming crowd-pleaser that’s practically flawless.

François Duhamel/Disney via AP

Saving Mr. Banks is about as aggressively sweet as a spoonful of sugar. There’s a certain contingent of bitter curmudgeons with a gag reflex for such confection. Such a shame for them. As we all know too well by this point, sometimes a heap-full of sweetness goes down in the most delightful—and surprising—of ways.

It’s been a great year for movies. It’s also been a bleak and extremely intense one. There’s been ruthlessness (12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips), hopelessness (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), heartbreak (Her, Nebraska), and sex (American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street). Now, thanks to the practically perfect Saving Mr. Banks—and one cantankerous nanny—there’s finally some happiness. Turns out the one thing the Oscar season was missing was some magic.

Saving Mr. Banks is the story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, and the creative war she wages with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). After years of saying “no,” she’s forced to, for financial reasons, work with him on adapting her popular children’s novel for the big screen.

Travers is having none of it. She’s having none of Disney’s ideas. She’s having none of sunny Los Angeles. And she’s certainly not politely pretending that she’s pleased to be entrusting her Mary Poppins in the hands of anyone else. Or pleased about most things, in general. Upon arriving at Hollywood’s retro-perfect version of LAX, for example, she’s greeted by her chauffeur, played by Paul Giamatti. “It smells like…” she begins, with Giamatti interrupting: “Jasmine.” Nope. “Chlorine,” Travers replies. “And sweat.”

P.L. Travers was a woman of intention. Stubborn intention. You might call her obstinate. You’d be right. But she knew what she wanted and, more importantly, she knew what she did not want. She absolutely did not want five things in Disney’s film adaptation. No made up words. No Dick Van Dyke. No animation. No mustache on Mr. Banks. And—and this is the big one—she was very adamant that Mary Poppins does not sing.

Could you imagine?

“She’ll be cavorting and twinkling,” Travers frets, explaining why she’s spent decades refusing Disney’s offers to film her literary treasure. It’s great fun to witness, as if the entire movie is a wink to the audience, who knows precisely who ends up winning the battle of creative wits.

“Responstible is not a word!” she chastises composer/lyricist brothers Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) as they preview for her songs they’re workshopping for the film adaptation. “We made it up!” they chirp, proudly adhering to the directive of whimsy that’s the standing rule at the House of Mouse. “Well, un-make it up,” she tartly advises. A quick cut reveals the brothers gingerly hiding their next piece of sheet music. Title: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The scene couldn’t be cuter. And “cute,” most certainly, is not a word that could be used to describe any of the big moments in the rest of this year’s Oscar contenders. “Harrowing”? Oh yes. “Unflinching”? Have you seen 12 Years a Slave? Gravity owns “anxiety-inducing,” while American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street contribute upwards of three hours of the word “wild.”

There’s a lot of cute happening in Saving Mr. Banks and, blessedly, none of it is animated. (Ms. Travers would certainly approve.)

Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney with mischief in his eyes and a twinkle in his step, and Emma Thompson gives P.L. Travers’s crankiness a dignity that makes her irresistibly endearing. It’s perhaps the only Best Picture hopeful this year that features a cast sing-a-long to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” that carries with it the very real possibility that audience members at the theater will take to the aisles to dance with them. Oscar voters like their nominees to be “moving,” and this is undoubtedly a literal interpretation of that.

As we learned last week to the tune of 18 million viewers and about as many passionate opinions with NBC’s Sound of Music Live!, American audiences have strong, intimate connections to the movie musicals of Julie Andrews. They remember watching them on rainy days when their grandparents were visiting, quizzing their first-grade classmates on the proper spelling on “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and breaking into song every time a spoonful of Robitussin was heading their way to help nurse a cold.

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Creating a movie about the creation of a movie is a gamble on its own. Creating one about the creation of Mary Poppins, a film held so close to our hearts, is serious high stakes. But it’s a bet that pays off, as the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is its own enchanted, bottomless carpet bag of endless gifts and tricks. Saving Mr. Banks is more than a movie about a snippy curmudgeon who excels at amusing put downs. It’s about a woman’s struggles to turn the pain of the past into the joy of the future—the joy that comes every time we watch Mary Poppins.

Through flashbacks we learn that the fictional Mary Poppins is based on Travers’ real aunt (Rachel Griffiths), who arrives when her father is hitting rock bottom. Her resistance to hand Mary Poppins’s story over to Walt Disney isn’t just because of her pride in the character. It’s because it means handing over all the grief of her past. “It’s not the children she comes to save,” Disney tells Travers, in a moment of epiphany. “It’s their father. It’s your father.”

Mary Poppins, the book and especially the movie, is a majestic work of imagination: nannies, penguins dance, Dick Van Dyke tap dances on rooftops. The same could be said, and likely will be said, about Saving Mr. Banks, which scrubs out any unsightly rusts from the real Ms. Travers’s life that would make the character anything less than the admirable Teflon titan she is in the film. There’s nary a mention, for example, of Travers’ rumored lesbian affairs or dalliance in the occult.

There are comparisons to 2009’s surprise blockbuster-turned-Best-Picture-nominee The Blind Side, which glossed over the messiest parts of “based on a true story” in order to turn Sandra Bullock’s character into the steeliest of magnolias, the way Saving Mr. Banks tempers Travers’s testiness and progressiveness to give her the soothing British accessibility of a warm tea. (Both films, as it turns out, are directed by John Lee Hancock.) Just as was the case with The Blind Side, expect mainstream audiences to gleefully ignore the sanitization—as long as hearts are warmed and crowds are pleased, we’ll stand for anything—as critics gripe about how supposedly egregious it is to expense truth for entertainment.

Some people could really use a spoonful of sugar.

There’s a line towards the end of the film, in a scene that’s likely to drive the bitter and jaded among us mad while elating, if not moving to tears, moviegoers and awards voters. Disney chases Travers all the way back to London for a last-ditch attempt at winning her over, engaging her in a psychotherapy session of sorts. He needs her to trust that his vision for Mary Poppins won’t bastardize her; it will bring her to life in ways Travers herself never thought possible.

“It’s what we storytellers do,” he says. “We restore order with imagination.”

In an Oscar season that leaves little to the imagination, whether it’s the brutal violence of 12 Years a Slave or the plunging necklines of Amy Adams’ wardrobe in American Hustle, it turns out Saving Mr. Banks is precisely the spoonful of sugar we all needed, a charming celebration of the wonders of the imagination—and the people who have the wildest ones.