Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Annie Rose Buckley, and Paul Giamatti
Written By: Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
Directed By: John Lee Hancock
Where is the line between commercial entertainment and artistic integrity? Funnily enough, the making of Saving Mr. Banks shares similarities with the story it tells – the making of Mary Poppins. As far as Saving Mr. Banks is concerned, the filmmaker’s have a responsibility to the real people that the film is based on (even if they are all dead) to tell their somewhat somber story accurately – but they also have a responsibility to Walt Disney Studios to deliver a crowd-pleasing holiday movie for the whole family. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and writers Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith have succeeded in doing both – they neither sugarcoat the characters or create a self-serving advertisement for Disneyland but still manage to ensure that you leave the theater smiling.
Emma Thompson stars as P.L. Travers, author of the whimsical tale Mary Poppins. The lighthearted novel is unknowingly Travers’ very intimate and personal story based on her difficult childhood and complicated relationship with her father. When Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) read Mary Poppins to his daughters, they immediately fell in love and begged their mogul daddy to make a movie version of it. Disney approached the curmudgeonly Travers once a year for twenty years but she consistently refused to let his studio give her beloved novel the Hollywood treatment.
Out of money and on the verge of losing her home, Travers finally agrees to hand over the film rights to Disney as long as she has final approval over the script and can oversee the production process. Working with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and musical composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak), Travers battles Disney and his team every step of the way in the attempt to properly adapt her novel.
Saving Mr. Banks uses a dual narrative structure to tell two stories at the same time. The crux of the film (and reason for this movie’s existence) takes place in Los Angeles in 1961 during the making of Mary Poppins. However, a good 35% (if not more) of the film takes place during 1907 in rural Australia focusing on the relationship between a young Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) and her father (Colin Farrell), a banker who slides into alcoholism while struggling to financially support his family.
The past portion of the film is integral in filling in the blanks of the present day (or 1961) tale we’re being told, however too much time is spent concentrating on the childhood aspect which is undoubtedly the less intriguing of the two stories. It’s in these flashback scenes that we learn where Travers’ cynicism stems from and why she is so hesitant to let Disney turn her real-life story into a musical yarn – but we would understand the psychology of her character all the same without so much time attending to these details. Had the entire movie been the 1907 story, this would be a dull slog to sit through, but it speaks to the strength of the 1961 portions of the film that they make the yesteryear sections more involving. And not for nothing – Colin Farrell as the Travers’ patriarch is perhaps the best performance the actor’s ever given.
When we’re not seeped in melodrama, the fun comes from watching Travers trying to tolerate the sunshine and chirpiness of Hollywood. She begrudgingly allows the filmmaker’s to turn Mary Poppins into a musical – but under no circumstances will she permit it to be animated. Suffice to say, that dancing cartoon penguins will appear during the “Chim Chim Cher-ee” sequence becomes something of a problem. Schwartzman and Novak are entertaining as the somewhat sheepheaded Sherman brothers who write all of the music for the film. As an audience member already familiar with the soundtrack to Mary Poppins, it’s enjoyable to be one step ahead of the brothers as they try to come up with lyrics like “just a spoonful of sugar”. In addition to these rehearsal reenactments making up the most “toe-tapping” parts of the movie, one of the film’s most touching moments also comes when Travers’ character finally lets loose after hearing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for the first time. Though – she would prefer the title “Let Us Go and Fly a Kite” as that would be proper English.
Even though he’s quite good, it’s hard to imagine that Hanks will get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Disney as his performance is somewhat understated and he doesn’t have as much screen-time as you might expect. Not to mention, he’s already getting enough attention for Captain Phillips. Though portraying such an iconic figure as Walt Disney in a movie produced by Walt Disney Studios, the filmmaker’s don’t glorify him but rather humanize him as a righteous yet imperfect man. Disney was a notorious chain-smoker who died of lung cancer, but the only restriction that the Disney company put on the filmmaker’s was the depiction of Walt smoking. They do manage to sneak in a puff as Traver’s storms into Disney’s office and catches him in a moment of vulnerability putting out a cigarette – “I don’t like anyone to see me smoking” he tells her.
In one of the best performances by a leading actress this year, it’s Emma Thompson who anchors the movie. When we first meet Travers, we see an unpleasant and bitter woman, but through flashbacks and character development we make sense of how she got that way. Travers’ character arc goes from us disliking her, to understanding her, then to finally rooting for her – not an easy role to pull off and Thompson manages it beautifully.
Saving Mr. Banks presents a plethora of interesting ideas all set in the world of a “magical kingdom”. In addition to being the story of a power struggle between two strong personalities, this is also the tale of a damaged woman trying to cathartically rewrite her past through literature. Working as both a comedy and a drama, the filmmaker’s take these heavy themes and manage to intersperse them into a fun biopic about the making of one of the most classic musicals of all time. Like P.L. Travers herself, Saving Mr. Banks has its faults, but by the end it’s so endearing that we can overlook them.