There’s something about Mary
“Saving Mr. Banks” is an entertaining movie, at least for those who can ignore the subtext.
The movies love underdog stories, particularly those of the creator vs. the corporation variety, where the noble inventors or artists resist the temptations of the greedy, powerful entities that want to exploit their talents.
But with “Saving Mr. Banks,” the corporate entity in the film, Walt Disney Studios, also happens to be the producer of the film. So in this version, the benevolent corporate chief – Walt Disney himself – not only helps a writer financially, he helps her deal with the personal traumas that inspired her work and still haunt her decades later.
The talents of Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are the spoonfuls of sugar that help it feel like an emotionally satisfying tale instead of a piece of corporate puffery, which it pretty much is.
The movie is based on Disney’s decades-long wooing of author P.L. Travers for the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” novels. According to the movie, the novels were the favorite books of Disney’s daughters. He promised them he’d make a movie of them, and a father doesn’t go back on a promise to his daughters.
But Travers (Thompson) doesn’t like musicals, she really, really doesn’t like animation and she doesn’t want Disney (Hanks) anywhere near her beloved books. But the books aren’t selling like they used to, and her agent informs her she’s in danger of losing her London home if she doesn’t accept Disney’s offer.
She agrees to go to Hollywood for two weeks to consult with the writers, composers and Disney to see if an agreement can be reached. And she’s not going to make it easy for any of them.
In between the scenes in Hollywood, the story flashes back to Travers’ childhood in Australia with a charming, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell); an overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson) and the umbrella-toting, no-nonsense aunt (Rachel Griffiths) who arrives to help out when dad becomes ill.
Thompson plays prickly and Hanks plays exasperated well and watching her bat down Disney’s every attempt at persuasion is entertaining. Fans of “Poppins” and movie buffs in general will enjoy the behind-the-scenes peak at the process (stay for the credits and hear the actual recordings of Travers’ sessions with the screenwriter and songwriters).
The real standout, though, is Farrell. It’s easy to understand why young Ginty (his pet name for his daughter) was so enchanted with her troubled father and how he inspired her creative tendencies. Conversely, it would have been nice to see more of Griffiths’ Aunt Ellie in order to draw similar parallels.
Director John Lee Hancock packs the cast with talented actors in supporting roles – Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the songwriting team of Robert and Richard Sherman, Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi and Kathy Baker as Disney’s assistant.
Strong memories of the 1964 film aren’t a necessity, but they will help in the appreciation of the film.
And “Saving Mr. Banks” is going to play much better to the parents (grandparents?) old enough to have watched Walt himself on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” or on “The Wonderful World of Disney” (the anthology series that followed it) than it will to today’s youngsters.
But for older moviegoers, “Banks” should be a well-made, nostalgic treat.