Directed by: John Lee Hancock.
Written by: Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.
Starring: Emma Thompson (P.L. Travers), Tom Hanks (Walt Disney), Annie Rose Buckley (Ginty), Colin Farrell (Travers Goff), Ruth Wilson (Margaret Goff), Paul Giamatti (Ralph), Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi), B.J. Novak (Robert Sherman), Jason Schwartzman (Richard Sherman), Lily Bigham (Biddy), Kathy Baker (Tommie), Melanie Paxson (Dolly), Andy McPhee (Mr. Belhatchett), Rachel Griffiths (Aunt Ellie).
I wish it were possible that a studio other than Disney to have made Saving Mr. Banks – simply because this is a story about two people who have pretty much the complete opposite ideas, and both of whom are pretty much 100% right, and I find that fascinating. P.L. Travers resisted Disney’s offer to buy the film rights to her series of Mary Poppins books for year because she feared that Disney would do pretty much exactly what he did to them – make them schmaltzy and cartoony – fill the film with cheesy songs and animation and the creation that meant so much to her would become forever linked with Disney – more so even than with her. On that, she was correct – that was pretty much exactly what Disney did to her book. Walt Disney wanted to buy the books because he knew that he could make a great musical comedy out of them – and make generations of young filmgoers fall in love with the film – and he was also pretty much 100% right. I don’t think too many serious film buffs would argue that Mary Poppins is the best film of 1964 – but now, 49 years later, it is inarguably the most enduringly popular. Who hasn’t seen Mary Poppins? What child doesn’t love it? What adult still cannot sing some of the songs by heart? Disney may well have “ruined” Travers books – but in doing so, he ensured that her creation would be remembered forever.
Saving Mr. Banks is a supposed feel good comedy about the stuffy Englishwoman Travers coming to Hollywood in 1961 to see what Disney has planned for her books – and to determine if it meets with her impossibly high standards so that she’ll actually sell the rights. She has little money, and doesn’t have all that much choice in the matter, but damn it, she’s going to ensure they don’t ruin her creation. About a quarter of the film takes places in flashback – in the early years of the 20th Century in Australia, where a young Travers watches her fun loving father slowly succumb to his alcoholism – and how that experience altered her life, and inspired Mary Poppins.
The film, it must be said, basically a commercial for the magic of Disney. Tom Hanks plays Uncle Walt as a fun loving, informal guy, who insists everyone calls him Walt. He steamrolls over everyone in an effort to get his way, but he’s also kind and thoughtful – willing to bend over backwards to make Travers happy. Emma Thompson is Travers herself – a stereotypical uptight British woman, although one the movie allows a little humanity in those flashbacks scenes which shows why she may be how she is. They are, in different ways, both delightful performances. Hanks still has that everyman quality that made him a star, even when he’s playing someone as well-known as Walt Disney – it’s impossible not to like Hanks, and impossible not to like Disney. Thompson may be a boring old British lady – but she’s whip smart, clever and often hilarious in her putdowns. They are surrounded by a fine supporting cast who do some very good work – Paul Giamatti and Colin Farrell in particular are very good, in roles that sneak up on you a little bit.
No matter how good the performances are – and how amusing the screenplay is, and the delight of the period details are – it never did leave my mind that I was basically watching a commercial, whose ultimate message was that Disney knows best. Which is why I wish some other studio could have been allowed to make the film (impossible given that Disney has the Mary Poppins rights in their iron grip) so that perhaps the film could have been slightly more complex in its examination of this conflict. As it stands, the movie is an enjoyable little romp – fine performances and some good music, but also immediately forgettable. You’ll most likely have fun with Saving Mr. Banks – unless you’re a complete cynic – but you’re also likely to forget it soon after the end credits role. This fascinating story deserved better.