Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, B.J. Novak, Jason Schawartzman, Annie Rose Buckley, Bradley Whitford, Rachel Griffiths, Ruth Wilson
I would assume it is safe to say that many people, like me, grew up watching Mary Poppins. I consider it one of my favorites in the Disney canon. You believed that Julie Andrews or some magical nanny would fly in and take you on an adventure. Saving Mr. Banks gives us some insight on how that classic made it to the big screen. Author Pamela “P.L.” Travers (Thompson) was strictly opposed to having her beloved novel “Mary Poppins” adapted for the big screen, especially by Walt Disney (Hanks). She assumed he would turn it into some sugary sweet animated movie that would ruin her characters. Disney has pursued Travers for the rights to her story for twenty years as a promise to his daughter. Her agent begs and pleads with her as she has now run out of money.
She finally abides and heads to Los Angeles for her meeting with Disney. Even after their initial talk, she will not sign over the rights quite yet. She makes it quite clear that she will have to be part of the creative process. Not only does she want script approval, but she has very strong opinions about the design and look of the characters, the actors cast, and the conceptual drawings. Composer Richard Sherman (Schwartzman) and his writing partner and brother Robert (Novak) find it quite difficult to appease to her needs as she is not even keen on it being a musical. What they do not know is true meaning behind these characters to Travers. They hold a very special place in her heart as she based them on her childhood and the relationship she had with her father (Farrell).
The film goes back and forth between the two time frames of when Pamela was a child in 1906 and the Walt Disney portion of the story in 1961. I originally thought that her childhood would only be treated as brief flashbacks. I was quite surprised to find that a third, if not half of the movie, is devoted to her childhood and how Mary Poppins came to be. Unfortunately, I think this portion of the film drags the energy down. There is a vitality and sense of humor with Thompson and Hanks, so when we switch out of 1961 and go back to 1906, there is tonal change that is quite evident. That is not to say that Buckley and Farrell are bad, they are actually quite good. The writers could have gotten to the point of that storyline a bit quicker. As someone that is quite obsessed with “Six Feet Under”, I also wanted to see more of Rachel Griffiths who plays the real Mary Poppins.
The film boats quite a strong supporting cast that may go unnoticed next to Thompson and Hanks. There are many actors here like Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, and Jason Schwartzman that are not quite used to being under the Disney banner or making family friendly films. Giamatti has played numerous schmucks, and it is a great change of pace for him to play the sweet innocent chauffeur who has to cart Travers back and forth to the Disney lot. Schwartzman steps away from his usual Wes Anderson fare and pares well with B. J. Novak as the Sherman brothers. Hanks has had a strong year after his stunning work in Captain Phillips. He captures those charming and charismatic qualities that Disney needs. Disney was an iconic figure and you need an actor that is believable as someone who has built an empire that has lasted decade after decade. Hanks is quite believable and capable of pulling off that lofty feat. It should come as no surprise that Thompson is practically perfect in every way. I would watch her read the phone book. There is the outward frosty demeanor to Pamela, but Thompson knows how to easily add that inner dimension behind her eyes that elevates her from being a one-noted bitchy villain. You can see the inner struggles she continually battles. The comedic side of Thompson comes alive as she can deliver every zinger and witty jab flawlessly.
Some people have issues with the fact that Disney is making a movie about one of their own movies. They can just go complain to themselves. Yes, there is definitely a Disneyfied sheen to this story that definitely has some drama behind it, but oh who cares. Like Mary Poppins, this is a wonderful family film that can easily tap into your inner child. The songs are infectious and it is hard to not want to start singing along as the Sherman brothers start to plunk them out on the piano. My Lord, I completely lost it when “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” started. I started to well up, and I rarely cry at movies. I have many fond memories of watching Mary Poppins as a child. I attribute that to my Grandma Lois who has long passed away, so Saving Mr. Banks was a nice trip down memory lane.
RATING: **** (4 out of 5 stars)