Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks is Walt Disney in this story of the making of Mary Poppins

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Saving Mr. Banks

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Directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B. J. Novak, Kathy Baker, Ronan Vibert, Mia Serafino, Demetrius Grosse, Bradley Whitford, Victoria Summer. Written by Kelly Marcel and sue Smith.

Whenever John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks – a (mostly) true account of the genesis of Disney’s film version of Mary Poppins and the relationship between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers – flashes back to early 20th Century Australia and Thomas Newman’s overly-sentimental (and distractingly out-of-place) score overtakes the soundtrack, the film just about grinds to a halt as Hollywood schmaltz overtakes the purportedly-true backstage Hollywood drama. 

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That’s a shame, because the rest of Saving Mr. Banks is really first-rate stuff. I’m a sucker for this kind of making-of, behind-the-scenes story, and everything with Disney and Travers, Mary Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi, and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, had me hooked. 

Emma Thompson stars as Travers, who has refused to sell the rights to her Mary Poppins novels to Disney for over twenty years, fearing the animation giant would turn her beloved work into something crass for the masses. But now in need of cash, she agrees to work on the film version with one stipulation: she will be involved in the creative process, and will have final say over the script. 

Thompson is dynamite as the author, a surly, arrogant woman who insists on being called “Mrs. Travers” and is used to getting everything else her way, too. She didn’t exactly get along so well in England, we imagine, and she’s really out of place in Southern California. Of course, she eventually opens her heart, especially in scenes with her sunny limousine driver (played by Paul Giamatti), who wins her over with tales about his daughter. 

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Travers is balanced out by Disney, played by Tom Hanks, who is so magnetic that we can hardly imagine anyone else in the role. He’s the one character who is able to dominate Travers in conversation, and the scenes where he convinces her to work with him – why he has pursued making Mary Poppins for the past 20 years, and the deep respect he has for the material – are downright magical. 

Even if it’s all bullshit. Walt Disney, of course, may have had a darker side, but you can’t go into this Disney-produced film starring Tom Hanks as Walt with any preconceptions of depth or historical accuracy. Still, this whitewashed version is fascinating just the same. Travers, meanwhile, is persistently unlikable in the film but was apparently much worse in real life. I’d love to see a more realistic portrayal of these characters, but that would have been a different film entirely. 

Also great here are Bradley Whitford as screenwriter DaGradi, who butts heads with Travers (and loses out) on just about every minute detail, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the songwriting Sherman brothers. Travers is initially vehemently opposed to turning Mary Poppins into a musical, but the boys eventually win her over with their infectious tunes. Whenever Mr. Banks sticks to the filmmaking, it soars.

But those Aussie flashbacks! The film stops dead in its tracks whenever they grace the screen, which is far more than you might expect – at a guess, I’d say they come close to half of Saving Mr. Banks total running time. 

The Mr. Banks character in Mary Poppins, you see, was Travers’ father, who is played (quite nicely) by Colin Farrell in the outback scenes. He was an alcoholic but a loving father who made quite the impact on the young Travers (then Helen Goff), played by Annie Rose Buckley. There’s even a Poppins-esque maid that tries to save the family while dad is bedridden, and other mawkish parallels between Travers’ childhood and her celebrated work. Not only wouldn’t the author have liked the psychoanalysis going on here, but all the unrelenting schmaltz would have been too much for 1960s-era Disney. 

Saving Mr. Banks was the subject of an awards-season takedown earlier this year when Meryl Streep, (ironically) presenting an award for Thompson’s performance in the film, spoke about Walt Disney’s “racist proclivities” and deemed him a “gender bigot”. A few days later, Disney’s grandniece Abigail Disney not only publicly agreed with Streep, but discredited the film as “a brazen attempt by the company to make a saint out of the man.”

The result? While Saving Mr. Banks was widely expected to receive Oscar recognition – especially for Thompson’s performance, which had already won end-of-season awards – the film was almost completely shut out of the Academy Awards nominations, garnering a single nom for Thomas Newman’s overbearing, anachronistic original score.

Not that Mr. Banks is deserving of awards accolades. Half fascinating, half frustrating, this was a film I often groaned at, but also admired enough to recommend.

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