When nominations were being made for the 2014 Golden Globes, I read that if Saving Mr. Banks were to get a nomination, it would have been in the drama category. That sounded odd. I mean Tom Hanks as Walt Disney trying to get the author of Mary Poppins to sign over movie rights, a drama? Now, the Golden Globes don’t always get it right – it’s kind of their thing, but regarding Saving Mr. Banks as a drama – they were right about this one.
It may seem a bit self-indulgent for a movie studio to make a movie about how amazing they were when they made another movie, but there’s more to this story than just that. Primarily, Saving Mr. Banks is the behind the scenes story of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) furiously courting writer P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in the hopes of getting her to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins children’s books. Hanks summons all of the likability of well, Tom Hanks, to portray the larger than life filmmaker. His motive is to fulfill a promise to his daughters 20 years in the making, that he would produce a film about their favorite childhood books. Travers is the holdout as she has seen Disney’s films over the past 20 years and does not want her beloved characters to be romping around stage, singing, and worst of all…as cartoons! In 1961, Disney finally convinces Travers to at least visit Los Angeles, sit in with the writers, and see what happens.
Travers is a terror on Disney, his writers, and his staff. Her arrogant British ways are on full display, but it is clear that she has high defenses for a reason; these characters are important to her for reasons Disney can not possibly understand. Director, John Lee Hancock explores the layers of Travers through flashback, sporadically inserting scenes of her childhood with her parents Travers (Colin Farrell) and Margaret (Ruth Wilson). Through these flashbacks, the audience gets a rueful sense of Poppins’ origin. Hancock and his editors are brilliant at sensing when these scenes are necessary. This is especially evident in a fine scene set to the Mary Poppins song, “Feed the Birds.”
Cleary, Mary Poppins becomes a film and a film beloved by generations of people for 50 years now, so whether the film is made is not a source of tension whatsoever. The strength of the film is in its way that Travers and Disney slowly are able to find common ground. Doubtless, we are seeing some revisionist history. I’m sure that if another studio had been granted the rights to tell this story, we might get a different vision of Walt Disney, the man. However, Saving Mr. Banks does not seek to disparage its characters. Rather, it desires to explore some of the “magic” that makes characters and stories meaningful to us. The film is actually quite clever in its construction as it subtly mirrors the conflict in Mary Poppins through Travers’s fear of what blind capitalism might do to something she sees as so precious and pure.
Disney fans will also find much to enjoy as the nostalgia level is through the roof and hypnotizing. Memorable songs from Mary Poppins are strewn all over the film, and it is very enjoyable to watch these songs develop and be performed all over again. In one scene, as Paul Giamatti’s character, Ralph, drives Travers into Walt Disney Land for the first time, he may as well come back and pick us up too! In fact, during the credits photos of Walt Disney and all of the characters from the film are displayed and a real audio sample of the real P.L. Travers bossing around the writers can be heard. The film is laced with Disney, but the contact high is pleasant.
Thompson is irrepressibly repressive as Travers. It is a delight to see her take the lead again for the first time since reprising her role as Nanny McPhee in 2010; however, this is her finest and most substantial performance in many years. By the end of the film, she has the audience in the palm of her hand and conveniently one of the film’s final scenes takes place in a movie theater where the audience has no choice but to fully experience and empathize with her literally from per point of view. Hanks does an ample and sufficient job as Disney, but most of his scenes involve making puzzled looks or smiling a lot. There are several times throughout the film where viewers will ask themselves, “how is he ever going to get this woman to sign over the rights?” and he succeeds in making us understand, chiefly thanks to one fine speech towards the film’s end. Otherwise, Hanks is a recognizable caricature. It is certainly P.L. Travers’s story, but it would have been nice to get a bit more into Disney’s head than this film had intended.
Saving Mr. Banks is a surprisingly rich contextual film, appropriately layered to tell not one but two deeply related stories. I was surprised how caught up I found myself with the flashback scenes and consequently with how much I liked this film. A-
Saving Mr. Banks is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours.