By Simon Miraudo
December 10, 2013
There’s nothing quite as “inside baseball” as movies about the movie-making process (except, I suppose, movies about the intricacies of baseball). John Lee Hancock‘s Saving Mr. Banks takes us behind the scenes and into the Walt Disney sausage factory, where P.L. Travers’ beloved novel Mary Poppins was adapted into a Hollywood sensation circa 1964. That may sound like a horror story for lovers of art and haters of homogenised, Disneyfied product. And sure, sceptics would be accurate in predicting the film hardly presents folksy overlord Walt himself with too many blemishes.
Yet, Saving Mr. Banks isn’t about the business side of cinema. It’s not the narrative of how something good and pure was turned into pap. It’s a reminder that art means something to its makers, and that’s where the tension comes from: two passionate people – the intensely protective Travers (Emma Thompson) and professional dream-weaver Walt (Tom Hanks) – butting heads over their differing ideas of how a character should be portrayed. (No, it’s not the miraculous governess Mary Poppins they go to war over, but rather, the beleaguered Mr. Banks, father of the children who Poppins whips into shape.) Hancock and his screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith do sidestep the more brutal realities, such as the fact Travers went to her grave despising the resulting work. Still, the emotional effects of their flick are undeniable, as is its love for the source material, as well as the art of cinema itself. Saving Mr. Banks is a delightful, magical, sometimes splendiferous celebration of imagination.
Thompson takes on Travers with prickly relish, depicting her as a flabbergasted, barb-tongued schoolmarm. In 1961, having long turned down Disney’s request for the rights to her book, she acknowledges her impending financial ruin and finally leaves her brownstone London home for sunny Los Angeles. Before signing anything over, she must make certain her best-seller will be done justice, sitting in with flummoxed screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) as they parse the script. Travers records their meetings to ensure her every request be met in the final cut, be it the renaming of a character, or the eradication of the colour red. The biggest hurdle comes when the designs for Mr. Banks are revealed, and the curious inclusion of a moustache suggests he’s been made in Disney’s image. This sets Travers right off.
Throughout the flick, Hancock treats us to flashbacks of Travers’ youth, where her father (Colin Farrell) battled alcoholism and struggled to provide for his family in rural Queensland. Marcel and Smith’s screenplay smoothly whisks us back and forth between America and Australia, never spending too much time in one place and not enough at the other. When Walt and his writing team cotton on that her precious Mr. Banks might be a reflection of her own dad, they realise why she’s rejected their proposals so far. To put it frankly, they’ve been getting him wrong. I can’t believe a Disney production – the first one to ever portray their founder – would build two entire acts around the detail he’d been getting something wrong.
Hanks has the most difficult role here, playing somehow the most known person, and yet also the most unknown. A late monologue about his own father, Elias, is delivered with pitch-perfect precision, never venturing into the overwrought, though still concisely illustrating his motivations, desires, damages, and very definition as a man. Saving Mr. Banks is all about daddy issues, but thankfully this Disney effort doesn’t have any issues in representing its own on the screen. The two leads give nicely layered performances, and they are not let down by the supporting cast. Everyone already mentioned is a comic treat. Paul Giamatti in particular threatens to steal the show from under its stars as Travers’ kindly, effervescent driver, always seeing the good in things; a lovely distillation of the Disney ethos.
On a technical level, Saving Mr. Banks is serviceable. Thomas Newman’s score, unfortunately, is the kind of saccharine family fare you’ve heard – and been annoyed by – countless times before. Mercifully, orchestral stings from the original Mary Poppins haunt the feature, and they are a more than adequate distraction. Whether or not tears come to you in the last act, as they did for me, relies entirely on how you relate to the sometimes imperceptible achievements of the performances, or depend on one’s own relationship to and memory of Mary Poppins. Hancock is a talented tear-wrangler, as he also demonstrated in his decent football weepie The Blind Side. He doesn’t overstep his bounds here, avoiding melodrama and instead earning a big, climactic, cathartic moment.
This is a nice tale, told well. Its highlight comes during the credits, when a priceless artefact of Travers’ journey to L.A. is unveiled (spoiling it here would be far too cruel). However, the best compliment I have for Saving Mr. Banks is it doesn’t feel like a series of calculated decisions, even if it might truly have been as much. It certainly doesn’t come across that way. It puts the art – and the heart and thoughtfulness that gave birth to it – front and center, and it might be the first Disney picture to have done that in some time.
Saving Mr. Banks arrives in Australian cinemas January 9, 2014.