Before seeing Saving Mr. Banks I didn’t know much about the negotiations between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers leading up to the production of Mary Poppins. After seeing it, I still don’t feel like I know the whole truth, but the film delivers such a well-told story, such a compelling depiction of two visionary artists and the fluidity of the creative process, that I have to appreciate it as a terrific piece of fiction.
From the moment the film begins, we know how it’s going to end. After all, Disney did make a Mary Poppins movie, so at some point author Travers must have given him the rights to her beloved characters. The big question for the audience to ponder throughout is how Disney (played by Tom Hanks) will eventually get through to the seemingly intractable Travers. Ultimately, there are two contributing factors (and I don’t think this is giving too much away)–the irresistible charm of the Disney dream factory and a keen understanding of Travers’ psyche and the emotional scars that have yet to heal. At least, according to this story. The first is not hard to believe if you’ve ever seen how a visit to Disneyland can melt even the most hardened of hearts; the second is a bit tougher to swallow, and may in fact be a complete fabrication. As long as you accept that going in, you’ll find a lot to enjoy about Saving Mr. Banks.
There are so many ways this script could have gone wrong. It could have come off as cheesy or pandering or boring or a run-of-the-mill biopic, and yet it is none of those things. What sets it apart is the way it weaves together a parallel narrative, showing us flashbacks from Travers’ childhood in rural Australia in between scenes of her trip to Los Angeles, as Disney and his creative team try to woo her into signing a contract. We see the mature Travers (Emma Thompson) scoff and squabble and make unreasonable demands– like the film being devoid of the color red–but we also see her as young, vulnerable Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley), who idolized her loving, yet deeply flawed father (Colin Farrell). Through those flashbacks we come to understand the experiences that shaped her work and why she is so protective of it. At times it’s a bit too neat the way the past merges with fiction–memorable lines of dialogue and even entire scenes are lifted directly from Mary Poppins–but those moments underscore the theme of life’s influence on art and vice versa.
It doesn’t hurt that the film has some of Hollywood’s most distinguished actors in the lead roles. Thompson, now a Golden Globe nominee and a strong contender for an Oscar nomination as well, accomplishes the very tough job of making Travers simultaneously disagreeable, vulnerable, and ultimately endearing. Hanks had a different kind of challenge in portraying such a well-known media personality. He does a passable impression, coasting on his own natural likability and building up to a powerful monologue near the end. As musical composers Richard and Robert Sherman, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak get some great comedy beats and musical sequences, performing iconic songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” Paul Giamatti also shines in a smaller role as Travers’ personable driver, a character invented for the film. But the unsung heroine of this star-studded cast is Buckley, whose sad eyes and ginger curls melt and break your heart at the same time.
It should be noted that despite this being a story about the making of a children’s film, it is not a film for children. If the PG-13 rating and the 125-minute running time aren’t enough of a deterrent, the themes are mature in nature and some of the scenes may be disturbing (including depictions of alcohol abuse and an attempted suicide) for sensitive kids or younger teens.
For anyone else, especially creative types or those interested in Disney lore, I can give Saving Mr. Banks a confident recommendation.