Saving Mr. Banks Review: A Spoonful of Sternness
With films like Argo, The Artist, and Hitchcock all appearing within the last few years, it would seem that movies about movies are completely en vogue. That trend continues this season with the release of Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, a telling of the tumultuous struggle between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers to adapt her fictional creation, Mary Poppins, to the big screen.
Set in 1961, the film largely focuses on a trip that Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) made to Los Angeles to meet with Walt (Tom Hanks), screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the songwriting Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to approve the screenplay and finally grant Walt the rights that he had been seeking for almost 20 years. The undertaking is anything but easy though. The stuffy and stern-minded Travers objects to almost every idea Walt and his team have for the film including the inclusion of songs, the use of animation, and details like Mr. Banks having a mustache. The fact that no one went postal during this process is a testament to all involved.
But instead of the film being a simple negotiation between Disney and Travers, screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith along with director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) opt to set half of the film in flashbacks that take us to 1906 Australia where Travers lived out her childhood with her family led by a fun-loving but alcoholic father portrayed by Colin Farrell. Through these flashback scenes Travers’ psyche really come to life as we start to get a sense of why she’s so protective of her vision for Mary Poppins and the reasons behind many of the stuffy character traits that we witness from her in the film’s early scenes.
Since the film’s momentum really relies on this unfolding mystery I don’t want to give away anything in more detail but I will say that Emma Thompson commands the role with gusto. She is at once frustrating, humorous, admirable, and sad, which is no small feat to juggle in an entire film much less in every scene that she is in. The character of Travers is an immensely complex one and is the true backbone and focal point of the film. Those hoping to get a closer glimpse at the life of Walt Disney himself will come away sadly disappointed.
Speaking of Walt – how is Tom Hanks you might ask? Pretty damn good actually. Like all performances from Hanks, he absolutely loses himself in the role to a point where you forget you’re watching the man who has been Forrest Gump, an astronaut, a bosom buddy, and a cast away amongst countless other memorable roles. Because this is a film being produced by Disney Studios this is naturally a depiction of Walt that fits in with the company’s legend of the man as a sort of eternally jolly, family-oriented figure, but Hanks is also able to show glimpses of Walt’s sometimes shrewd business tactics (he tries to avoid inviting Travers to the premiere of Mary Poppins out of fear she will openly trash it to the press) which I found to be a welcome surprise. We will never in our lifetimes see a warts-and-all depiction of Walt Disney on film so it’s hard to imagine anything better than what we get here with Hanks.
The rest of the cast does an admirable job with their roles with Paul Giamatti turning in some particularly nice work as Travers’ driver, Ralph. B.J. Novak, on the other hand, is somewhat awkward as Robert Sherman but it almost works for the character so it’s not a total distraction.
Director Hancock and his camera team provide some beautifully crafted shots (especially in the Australia scenes) and each scene is delivered with a well-oiled precision of professional filmmakers doing things in the tried and true methods of classic filmmaking but there is some repetition in the story that causes pacing issues and makes the film seem a lot longer than it really is. For instance, during many of the flashback scenes I yearned to be back in the 60s-set scenes with Walt and Travers, but it was never enough to derail the movie entirely.
It should come as no surprise that this isn’t exactly revolutionary filmmaking. It is a relatively straightforward story about a very complicated woman trying to protect her creation from a jolly, well-intentioned foe. Hancock doesn’t break any new ground cinematically but he doesn’t really have to either. With strong lead performances, an interesting screenplay, and a glossy visual finish, Saving Mr. Banks is a nicely wrapped present to fans of literature, classic Disney films, and the art of creation. You certainly won’t need a spoonful sugar to help it go down. It’s plenty sweet as it is.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.