It’s appropriate that Tom Hanks would be the biggest name to portray Walt Disney on the big screen. I imagine he’s a very nice guy, but after being one of the biggest box office draws for almost 30 years, he has to be used to wielding a certain amount of power; getting—within reason for a multimillionaire, I suppose—what he wants. And despite his cuddly “Uncle Walt” persona, Walt Disney built an empire from the ground up, revolutionizing animated entertainment and vacation theme parks while he was at it. He regularly went on TV and told people what he was doing, and how he was doing it. There was an army of gifted craftspeople who had to do it for him. I imagine they weren’t always delighted with his demands.
Put into Walt Disney’s way, P.L. Travers was historically not happy with his attempts to adapt her Mary Poppins books on film. And, historically, she was especially unhappy with the final product, no matter how successful—or eventually legendary—it became. Julie Andrews was entirely too nice, the music and animation too insipid. Luckily for Walt Disney, history gets to be written by the winners.
With that in mind, we get Saving Mr. Banks, a delightfully formulaic telling of Travers’ (Emma Thompson) time in Los Angeles meeting with Disney, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and song sorcerers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, respectively). Intercut with this is a lyrical flashback of Travers’ time as a child in Australia, and her troubled adoration of her father, a struggling alcoholic and banker (a surprisingly moving Colin Farrell). As Travers’ inspiration for her stories unfolds, the audience grows sympathetic with her fight for integrity. Where Disney sees something children could truly love—and a source of revenue, naturally—Travers sees her characters as members of a family she has no intention of betraying.
Thompson is perfect as the prickly Travers. She fearlessly tangles with the Sherman brothers and the powerful Disney. He’s not rude, but is used to getting what he wants, and finds a confusing nemesis in Travers. Despite his power—shooting at classic Disney studio locations is interesting for movie and design buffs—Travers has little respect for it. Director John Lee Hancock, and the screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, pokes fun at Disney’s sugarcoated, child-friendly approach to just about everything (there’s an embarrassment of stuffed toys, tchotchkes and sugar. So much sugar), but there’s never any mistaking that Disney’s way is the right way.
Of course, the more interesting story is Travers’, but this is a Walt Disney Pictures film, so Disney must be just as important to Mary Poppins‘ iconic status as she was. Travers was apparently very close to her noble dreamer of a father, but transmogrified his whimsy into an overriding synonym for failure. P.L. Travers’ world—as Saving Mr. Banks perceives it—was one that required a cold, realistic figure to educate children about the darkness that eventually enshrouded life into adulthood. Luckily, Walt Disney, as well as a friendly driver played by all-star Paul Giamatti, is there to play therapist, and help inject some speck of joy back into her life.
- Hanks and Thompson’s chemistry is playfully combative
- Colin Farrell is excellent as Travers’ struggling father
- Revisionist, but not more than expected
- Could’ve used a more judicious editor
With its strangely jaunty 90s-era Touchstone Pictures soundtrack and lighting, Saving Mr. Banks dutifully adheres more to the mythology of Walt Disney’s persona than treat it with any real level of criticism. It runs a little long and is sometimes painful in its inevitability (we know the movie gets made, and what it looks like), but sheds some rose-colored light on a part of film history that’s been mostly overlooked. It’s got a message that everyone from lowly bankers to haughty authors to towering titans are driven by specific motivations, and the darker ones need to be given peace before any one of them can move forward; pretty heady stuff for a movie about how Mary Poppins got made.
Saving Mr. Banks, a BBC Films, Essential Media, Hopscotch Features, Ruby Films, Walt Disney Pictures production distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, is 125 minutes long and rated PG-13.