A movie about the making of a Walt Disney film, “Mary Poppins,” by Walt Disney Pictures seemed like it could have been a saccharine sweet telling with a warm and fluffy feeling that earned a PG rating so every parent would take their children to go see it this holiday season. Instead “Saving Mr. Banks” told a story based on actual events about real people and their less than perfect lives who through adversary created one of the most beloved films of all time.
Emma Thompson is brilliant as “Mary Poppins” author, P.L. Travers, who flew to Los Angeles from London in 1961 to negotiate with the Walt Disney Studios the possibility of bringing “Mary Poppins” to the big screen. At that point Walt Disney, portrayed for the first time ever on screen by Tom Hanks, had been trying to secure the film rights for nearly 20 years. During her stay we learn through flashback about the difficult childhood that inspired Travers’ writing and the creation of the flying nanny.
As mentioned above this isn’t a sugar-coated story although there are fun moments for the Disney aficionado like when Walt and Mrs. Travers visit Disneyland, or Mrs. Travers reaction when the songwriting Sherman Brothers, depicted by B.J. Novak as Robert and Jason Schwartzman as Richard, play “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for the first time. Colin Farrell portrays Travers’ alcoholic father who brought fantasy and imagination into her childhood, but also tragedy, while her mother, Ruth Wilson, seems to constantly be on the edge of nervous breakdown – this is not situations a child should have to deal with in real life or on the screen, which is why I applaud the PG-13 rating.
We see Walt Disney having a drink and snuffing out a cigarette, which the Walt Disney Company could have easily ignored, but Walt did have his vices and they were honest about it. I don’t know who else you could have gotten to play Walt, and while Hanks doesn’t have quite the right look, he does a great job capturing the essence and mannerisms of Walt Disney.
I had the opportunity to see Richard Sherman several times at the D23 Fan Expo this past summer as he spoke about his experiences work with Walt and on “Mary Poppins,” and I feel like the film captured those stories only he could retell. Schwartzman, who spend a lot of time with Sherman prior to and during filming, honored him with his performance and Novak did well capturing the prickliness of his later brother, Bob. Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi, Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver in Los Angeles, Ralph, and Melanie Paxson as Walt’s secretary Dolly, did a fantastic job portraying people and ‘cast members’ that truly embodied the Disney spirit.
The pacing of “Saving Mr. Banks” is at points slow because of the back and forth between the present and the flashbacks of Travers’ youth. As an adult Disney fan, I found this previously unknown story fascinating as a drama for adults, but could see where younger audience members could be bored. If you haven’t seen “Mary Poppins,” the film will hold little appeal for you. Caring about “Mary Poppins” and knowing that the film came close to never being made is what makes it matter. Also, if you haven’t seen “Mary Poppins” go watch it right now!
With great performances by all, including Annie Rose Buckley, the young actress who is mesmerizing as Ginty, a.k.a. P.L. Travers as a child, the intrigue behind how Disney was going to move Mrs. Travers to their cause, and moments that will make any “Mary Poppins” fans smile, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a captivating film that I recommend for the New Year, but watching “Mary Poppins” to seeing it is definitely a prerequisite.
I give “Saving Mr. Banks” a 4 out 5 stars. “Saving Mr. Banks” is currently playing in theaters everywhere.