Saving Mr. Banks - Movie Review
A Disney movie about one of the most famous Disney movies all time, Saving Mr. Banks focuses on a crucial two week period in 1961 when Mary Poppins’ novelist, P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) visits the Disney studios in Los Angeles. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) desperately wants the film rights to Mary Poppins and he is convinced he can do justice to the Travers’s book and make the author happy. How wrong he is.
How much you enjoy Saving Mr. Banks may depend on how much you love Mary Poppins, or movies and movie making in general. To say that the 1964 release (Mary Poppins) was a successful phenomenon is an understatement. There are tales of children making their parents drag them to see it over and over again, sometimes in the same day. But that was fifty years ago, so it is interesting to note that Saving Mr. Banks has already doubled its budget with domestic box office and is a hit for the Mouse Factory. Mary Poppins still has legs, or should we say--umbrellas.
The film is not a comedy, as many people seemed to believe that day I attended. However there are humor and light touches throughout. Mrs. Travers (as P. L. Travers insists on being called) is unnaturally attached to her characters and story and has only consented to meeting Disney and staying for a two week creative collaboration, when she is informed by her manager that she is broke. Pappa Disney has been courting and cajoling her for twenty years and understandably thinks he is finally making progress. Interestingly enough, the script has already been written and composers hired, despite the fact that Travers has not officially signed over the book rights. Disney, like all great producers had moxie.
The present (1961) story intercuts with flashbacks of Travers’s childhood in frontier Australia in the early twentieth century. In these flashbacks her father is played by the incredibly photogenic Collin Farrell, who does some of his best work to date in this film. He is an immensely likeable father, who despite his failings in business due to alcoholism retains an angelic almost mythical presence in Travers’ life – fifty years later. He hated being dependent on money and infused his hatred of it unto his daughter. Perhaps this is why she waited until she was desperate for money before consenting to sell the rights.
Travers is not a particularly likeable character. She is persnickety, prickly, and doesn’t make many friends as she goes about correcting everyone’s grammar. But from the very beginning her loyalty to her book and characters is admirable, and this somehow helps us root for her. Of course the flashbacks of her as a child, when she is vulnerable help as well. Emma Thompsons’s performance is flawless and this is just one reason why the present day sequences are more interesting than the flashbacks. She infuses Travers with such humanity, that you never see her as mean or villainous, and even though her vulnerability and warmth is deeply hidden you know it is there. This makes her realization and characterization transformation all the more moving and believable. It is great to see such a gifted, technically precise actress get a role of such depth that fits her perfectly.
Saving Mr. Banks is a good film. All production values are great, and it is refreshing to see a movie that isn’t laced with profanity and where no one dies. It is prestige film for sure. However, it is not a great film. Although it is an audience pleaser and it has had many good reviews and it was a surprise when it was NOT nominated for best picture, there have been several so-so reviews as well. Also there is a backlash from Hollywood, where many seem to be fixated on the presentation of Walt Disney as a saintly deity. I am not sure if I feel it is necessary to portray Disney as the true bigoted, anti-semantic, sexist, dictator that many people who worked with him insist he was. Although I think it is important for the truth to be known outside of the film. Disney haters are also lambasting the propaganda feel of the film, insisting the notorious Disney machine is just congratulating itself again. For me the film feels a bit overlong and it overplays its hand a few times. Also the flashbacks often feel like another film, take up too much screen time, and aren’t plotted as effectively as the “present story.” Furthermore a lengthy monologue near the end of the film feels too explanatory and contrived to bring about the resolution, it does. However, this aside, the film is interesting, well made and Thompson is perfect.