“Hanks, on the other hand, is surprisingly hollow in the picture, seemingly playing dress-up rather than outright immersing himself in the character of Walt Disney.”

I’ve seen films about making a movie, making a fake movie, the filmmaking process, and documentaries revolving around the distribution process of films. What I hadn’t seen until today was a film largely focused on getting the rights and meticulously dancing around the creative control aspect of filmmaking, which can now be scratched off the list thanks to me seeing Saving Mr. Banks.

The film is one of the most genial, sweetest things I’ve seen in 2013, however, one that isn’t afraid of incorporating heavier drama to its material. Set it 1961, the film concerns P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the writer of the beloved Mary Poppins storybook that has now etched itself into every child’s list of bedtime reads. Travers, a woman of notable sternness and sometimes bitterly frigid behavior, has been the target of the great Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in order to reach an agreement to bring her beloved character to life. Despite numerous negotiations and meetings, Travers and Disney could never reach an agreement.

Saving Mr. Banks
Directed by
John Lee Hancock
Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley
Release Date
20 December 2013
Steve’s Grade: B

Disney won’t budge on this one, though. He desperately wants to make the character of Mary Poppins blossom and come to life in a film adaptation. However, Travers is unwilling to negotiate, taking a “my way or the highway” approach to the project, and dismissing every kind action Disney and his staff make to win the respect of her as an insincere one. When Travers finally agrees to Disney making a film based on Mary Poppins, she assures that she is the only voice of the project. She soon monopolizes the project, looking over every detail and inclusion to make sure the film does nothing but meet her standards. She’s more devoted to keeping her creative vision alive than Howard Roark was trying to keep his architecture independence in The Fountainhead (although, for some reason, Travers seems to garner much more sympathy than Roark ever managed to conjure up).

Despite the narrative taking place in 1961, we constantly flashback to 1906 Australia, getting a glimpse at Travers’ life as a young girl. Her moderately-sized family grew up in a moderately-sized little farmhouse in the Australia countryside, living a life of considerable ordinariness, for the most part. The biggest setback and hardship of Travers’ young life is that her father (Colin Farrell) was an alcoholic, who later became very sick and bedridden. It isn’t until we, the audience (and Disney), sit down and consider Travers’ troubling upbringing that we understand the true story of Mary Poppins.

This makes a wonderful case for writers and aspiring writers everywhere, which is to look at the source material of their own personal favorites and see where exactly it came from. Otherwise, you’re running on a preconceived notion, which, if anything, is doing a disservice to the author.

The performances are about what you’d expect, with the film relying mostly on the capabilities of its own two headliners for much of the picture. It’s surprising to note, however, that Emma Thompson outshines Tom Hanks in the film almost entirely. Thompson, as usual, is a versatile character actress and seems to not only play P.L. Travers but also embody her, right down to every anal tendency and proper instance of ladylike conduct. For much of the film, Travers’ attitude is frustratingly self-absorbed, so much so that even when we learn her story and her motivation behind keeping the story of Mary Poppins unchanged, it’s still difficult to like her because of how uncompromisingly rude and snotty she is. That’s not to say her performance isn’t one of tremendous talent, but it is to say her character is made almost irredeemably unlikable through much of the film. Hanks, on the other hand, is surprisingly hollow in the picture, seemingly playing dress-up rather than outright immersing himself in the character of Walt Disney. It’s also worth noting that I don’t think I ever quite bought Disney’s sincerity or devotion to the Mary Poppins material, in a way that he genuinely cares that Travers is satisfied with the finished project and that her creative vision is upheld. Disney feels less like an animated genius and more like a car salesman in terms of conduct.

The element to commend here, however, is how the film deals with alcoholism in a suitably subtle way. The film doesn’t show Travers’ childhood as being tormented and doomed (doing so would make the film seem all too predictable and open to emotional manipulation). Instead, writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith show childhood that was burdened and effectively troubled, as Travers is often seen watching her ailing father cough up blood from a distance. The film shows that, while the childhood could’ve been significantly worse, it still had an immeasurable impact on Travers’ character and eventually influenced one of her most successful pieces.
[widgets_on_pages id=”AdSenseArticleBanner”]
It wasn’t until I had a conversation with a good friend that I realized Saving Mr. Banks is not really a kids film. The elements of comedy, Disney, and magic are all present, alluding to something of that nature, but this particular film is meant for a more mature audience. However, I still believe that perhaps a young child possessing a higher level of maturity could enjoy the picture for its whimsy and its depiction of making a story or fictional character a large part of your life.

The film was directed by John Lee Hancock, who seemed to be shunned from Hollywood for a good five years after the colossal financial failure that was The Alamo. It wasn’t until 2009 he got behind a camera to direct The Blind Side, another strong, motivational drama. Here, he devotes the same kind of slick, directorial craft to the story of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers that he did with the latter film’s material. While it could easily be criticized for laying on the sweetness too strongly and another patch in the “Hollywood saves the day” quilt of cinema, this is still a heartwarming drama that, thanks to a strong central performance and a message that rings true about writers, works because it knows its characters inside-out and how to portray them effectively.

Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic