Director John Lee Hancock won the hearts of much of North America with 2009’s The Blind Side. Whether the movie was enjoyable or not, there’s no denying the impact it had that year. Come December there’s a chance Hancock’s newest film, Saving Mr. Banks, will strike the same chord with audiences. It’s certainly deserving of that same success.
Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the woman behind Mary Poppins, has been turning down Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) advances for over twenty years. It’s the book rights he’s interested in, but she’s afraid he’ll turn it into another one of his goofy animated movies instead of appreciating the personal story Travers wrote it as. After discovering that she’s running out of money, Travers begins to change her tune. From that point on, we see plenty of back and forth between her and Walt, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the two men behind the picture’s music, Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak).
The scenes with Travers, the Sherman brothers, and DaGradi sum up the movie. During their creative meetings with Travers, they have to win her over with costume designs, songs, and every nut and bolt of the script. All of their scenes are in a small contained room, and each one of them is a delight. They’re funny and sharp. There’s nothing grand about these moments but they’re naturally charismatic, thanks to the actors’ collective charm.
Everyone will talk about the scenes between Travers and Disney, but, for the most part, she spends her time with the creative team and her driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti). The script, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, doesn’t waste a single side character in the present-set (1961) sequences, and the way the film uses Ralph and Giamatti is unexpected. Smith and Marcel could’ve left him as a character for Travers only to bounce off of, but there’s a genuine heart between the two. It’s never anything grand, overly sentimental, or overdone.
The flashback sequences to Travers’ childhood are another matter. We come to learn why Mary Poppins is such a personal story for her. Growing up Travers and her family were not financially comfortable. Times were hard for them, and they were made even harder by her loving but struggling father, Robert Travers (Colin Farrell), who P.L. Travers based Mr. Banks — the father in Mary Poppins — on. The flashbacks are not always subtle, but these times are glimpsed through the eyes of a child, and considering the tone and goal of Saving Mr. Banks that approach is fitting. The only fault to be found in Travers’ early years is with a nanny who comes into her life. She has a slightly heightened entrance, as if she’s pivotal to the woman Travers becomes, but that plot line doesn’t go beyond an intriguing entrance. Other than that, the flashbacks are affecting.
The flashbacks intercut with the main storyline fairly seamlessly. Hancock has some nifty transition shots and separates the two stories in small but effective ways with smooth camerawork and an appealing color palette. When the film is at its most dramatic in the flashbacks, Hancock does provide a degree of dread, but over all, the movie feels pleasant.
It’s probably unavoidable that with Hanks playing Disney the result could only be pleasant. The Walt Disney we see truly is Mr. Perfect, and his biggest flaw is that he’s driven and exceptionally personable. The script hints at Disney being not so different from Mr. Banks, but it’s more of a tidbit than actual drama. Some will take issue with Disney’s portrayal because of that, but his pure optimism provides an entertaining balance to Travers’ cynicism.
Cynical is the polar opposite of this film’s spirit. The movie may gloss over a pivotal detail regarding Travers’s reaction to the film adaptation of Mary Poppins, which you’ll likely read about when the movie comes out, but it works in the service of the story this film is telling. Some may see that story as cloying and sappy, but it’s more heartfelt and endearing than manipulative and crass. By the end, Saving Mr. Banks has a heart as big as Hanks’ Walt Disney.
The Upside: Tom Hanks delights with every smile; Emma Thompson is fantastic; Colin Farrell does some of the most emotional work of his career; the supporting cast in general is splendid; a movie you’ll happily see with your parents come Christmas
The Downside: There could have been more of a correlation made between Disney and Mr. Banks; the nanny from Travers’ childhood; an abrupt ending
On The Side: Cinematographer John Schwartzman is Jason Schwartzman’s half-brother.