The immovable object that is P.L. Travers meets the irresistible force of Walt Disney in the new movie Saving Mr. Banks, and the result is charming, more than a little sad but ultimately as uplifting as the best of Disney’s own films.
It is not as lighthearted as trailers have suggested, turning quite somber, even painful at times. But even then it is carried on the broad backs of Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney. It is worth the price of admission just to watch them square off.
Travers, as you may know, was the author of a series of books about the formidable nanny Mary Poppins, which became the basis for the Disney movie starring Julie Andrews. Disney was determined to get the rights to Travers’ character, contending — perhaps not accurately — that he learned of the book from his daughters. But Disney biographer Neal Gabler wrote that Travers, no fan of Disney’s films, proved a tough sell, battling over compensation, music, casting and even minute details.
Saving Mr. Banks presents a series of battles involving Travers, Disney, his writer Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers (composers of the Poppins music and other Disney hits) over the film. It also tries to explain Travers’ emotional tie to her story in a series of flashbacks to her grim Australian childhood and her hard-drinking, banker father (played by Colin Farrell). Mary Poppins, as the Disney movie and this one acknowledge, was not about saving children but about saving their father — much as Travers wanted to save her own.
Much the way Travers in the film demands gravitas for the Mary Poppins movie, the flashbacks give Saving Mr. Banks a dramatic weight that goes beyond the bickering over moviemaking. Still, the movie wars are engaging on their own. The flinty Travers — and Thompson is handy with the flint — brings her idea of propriety fiercely to bear, for example by insisting always on being called Mrs. Travers. Hanks’ Disney, meanwhile, is at once the affable, seemingly casual salesman determined to wear Travers down, and the steely-eyed businessman, especially when Travers offhandedly disdains his work.
Splendid cinematic confrontations ensue until Disney and Travers find common ground. (We all know that Mary Poppins gets made, and becomes a big hit.) Besides Hanks, there are fun moments with B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Shermans, and Bradley Whitford as DaGradi. Paul Giamatti is also on hand as Travers’ limo driver, who in his own way is part of the softening up of Travers. But we believe in that softening in large measure because of Thompson’s performance — and those flashbacks.
The film pounds home its insights about Travers and Banks rather too hard, especially since the audience is ahead of the characters. And a climactic scene where Disney shares his own childhood is a little too long and obvious, however well Hanks sells it. But the movie as a whole works very well in getting laughs — and a few tears.
Hanks, by the way, is having a very good year between this and Captain Phillips. So good, in fact, that the “for your consideration” screener of Saving Mr. Banks — sent to Oscar voters — recommends him as a supporting actor for Saving Mr. Banks so as not to dilute any best actor votes he might get for Captain Phillips. (Early awards nominations have honored Hanks for Captain Phillips.) There’s nothing here that tops Hanks’ final scene in Captain Phillips, but he and Thompson make a fine match.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.