Produced by: Disney Studios
Featuring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Lily Bigham, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths, Ronan Vibert, Jerry Hauck, Laura Waddell, Fuschia Sumner, David Ross Patterson, Michelle Arthur.
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Running time: 125 minutes
Tom Hanks great as Disney
There are few adults or children who aren't at least aware of the Disney classic movie "Mary Poppins," and most of those bear at least some sort of love for the film. In my review of that 1964 film, I mentioned that there are no others that take me back to my childhood like that one, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that regard.
It is somewhat unsettling to note that the movie nearly didn't get made and if author P.L. Travers, who created the character, had her way, it would have been a very different movie indeed.
In "Saving Mr. Banks," Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had always been enchanted by the tale of the flying nanny and made a promise to his daughters that he would make a movie of it someday. However, getting it done was a whole other matter entirely. P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the prickly author of the Mary Poppins books, was unwilling to sell her creation to Hollywood, which she considered a vulgar and schmaltzy place. Her prim and proper Poppins would doubtlessly be turned into a mindless dolt or worse still, a cartoon. Travers, you see, hated cartoons.
But, nearly broke, she reluctantly consented to travel to Hollywood to sign away the rights to Poppins and the Banks family, which she thought of as her own family. However, she insisted on script approval, and Disney in a nearly unheard-of move for him granted it. He gave the chilly Brit over to writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert (B.J. Novak) Sherman.
Things go rapidly downhill. Travers is uneasy with the idea of making Poppins a musical "Mary Poppins doesn't sing" she sniffs and she absolutely hates the idea of casting Dick van Dyke as Bert the Chimney Sweep. She's very uncomfortable with the Americanization of her characters, and the songs, well, she hates those too.
In fact there's very little American that she doesn't hate, from the architecture to the smell of Los Angeles, which she describes to her Disney-supplied driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti) as "sweat and exhaust." He describes the smell as jasmine, which pretty much sums up the difference between the characters. She hates the pastries and treats that long-suffering production assistant Biddy (Lily Bigham) supplies, and she barges in on Disney which drives his assistant, Tommie (Kathy Baker), batty.
And nothing they do makes Travers happy, not even a trip to Disneyland with Walt himself. Walt is at wit's end, particularly when she announces that the color red has been banned from the film. "You're trying to test me, aren't you," he murmurs quite perceptively. "You're trying to see how far I'm willing to go."
She holds the unsigned rights over his head like a Sword of Damocles. It isn't until she retreats to England, furious that Walt is planning to animate the chalk drawing sequence, that Walt figures out what is motivating her, and why she is so reluctant for the movie to proceed.
There are clues throughout, almost all of them in flashback sequences in which an 8-year-old Travers, nicknamed Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) adores her banker dad (Colin Farrell) in rural Australia in the early 20th century, but watches alcohol and disappointment slowly wear him away. It is there we see the genesis of Mary Poppins and the reason that P.L. Travers is a far different woman than Helen "Ginty" Goff was meant to be.
It's something of a miracle that "Saving Mr. Banks" was made at all. Although the script was independently commissioned, what other studio other than Disney would buy it? And Disney had a tight rope to walk; if Walt comes off as a saint, it smacks of self-aggrandizement. But if he comes off flawed, they might see their brand eroded.
In the end, Walt comes off as a genuinely good man, but one who is a sharp businessman and who can be as cold and calculating as he is warm and compassionate.
Near the end of the film, his assistant, Tommie, asks him why Mrs. Travers was left off the invitation list for the premiere of "Mary Poppins," and Walt says in a somewhat cold voice that there would be interviews and press to be done, and he had to protect the film. Travers had to literally ask for permission to come, and she never forgave him for that, among other things.
In fact, "Saving Mr. Banks" seems to imply that a certain understanding and mutual affection existed between Disney and Travers, and that simply wasn't the case. She found him overbearing and thought him deceitful and refused to work with him ever again. In fact, when Broadway musical producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her to do a stage version of "Mary Poppins," she outright refused, but later relented with the stipulation that nobody who worked on the film be connected in any way with the musical. After Travers' death in 1996, Mackintosh later approached Disney and got input from them.
Thompson's name has come up in Oscar discussions and for good reason; this is one of the finest performances of her stellar career. Travers is a disagreeable, cantankerous sort who insists that every script meeting be audio taped and finds reason after reason why things can't be done. However, when she allows people in, the vulnerable child emerges, and we see her regrets and her pain.
I read that some retired Disney sorts who actually worked on the film who saw "Saving Mr. Banks" were brought to tears because the details were so on-target. Certainly this was a labor of love and like most labors was a difficult and often painful one. Director John Lee Hancock plays one of the actual audio tapes of one of the initial script sessions over the end credits, so we get an idea of what the real Mrs. Travers was like; if anything, the film softened her image somewhat.
Disney, like most men who accomplish the sort of success that he did in life, is either sanctified or demonized depending on the nature of the person making the opinion. The real Walt Disney was somewhere between the two extremes. I think that this is as close a glimpse as we're likely to get at the real Walt, and while I tend to think that this is a fictionalized account of the real events surrounding the making of "Mary Poppins," it is nonetheless entertaining and engrossing and one of the year's best films.
Read this review at Carlo deVillalvilla's website.