On the surface, Walt Disney Pictures’ Saving Mr. Banks simply chronicles the tumultuous development of Disney’s film Mary Poppins during the early 1960s.
Most of the promotional material for this film showcases the contrast between folksy Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and the prim creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). The marketing department at Disney Pictures accurately surmised that showcasing the pairing of Hanks and Thompson was the best way to get people interested in this movie, and that is the strategy they went with. It’s a great dynamic, and both actors play really well against each other.
Having seen the film, the actual story is a bit deeper than that. In addition to detailing the development of Mary Poppins, the film also gives us a glimpse into the difficult childhood of Ms. Travers, born Helen Goff. Travers was born in Australia, the daughter of a struggling bank manager. Throughout the film in flashback, we see the playful, childlike side of her father Travers Goff (in a great turn by Colin Farrell) ultimately contrasted with his slow and steady slide into alcoholism and death by influenza. Director John Lee Hancock shows these scenes in a gauzy, dreamlike way that is in sharp relief to the high contrast almost documentary way that the Hollywood locales are shot in. The juxtaposition of past and present really gets to the heart of the story and shows who the titular “Mr. Banks” is and why he needs to be saved. There is some heavy stuff in this portion of the film, it’s not really meant for kids, but the material is handled well.
One of the true highlights of this movie is the ensemble cast, there are a ton of “movie stars” featured, yet they are all playing characters that serve the story. Tom Hanks is maybe a little bit too “Tom Hanksy” but Emma Thompson and Colin Farrell play their roles just sympathetically enough. Also worth pointing out are Paul Giamatti in a great little vignette role as Travers’ chauffer and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, who both do an amazing job as the Sherman brothers (as a songwriting duo, they wrote over 150 songs for Disney). To keep Hanks as sympathetic as possible, Novak and Schwartzman have to do most of the heavy lifting to show how frustrating the collaboration between P.L Travers and Walt Disney really was and they do it well.
What’s not so great is that, since it’s a Disney production, the Mouse ultimately wins. In the film narrative, Travers is eventually won over by the optimism and good heartedness of Walt Disney and company. In reality, although she became a multi-millionaire as a result, Travers was incensed with the finished film and did not allow rights for any future films. The relationship between Disney Pictures and Travers was so acrimonious that in her final will she made clear that nobody from the film production was to involved in the subsequent stage musical that followed, most specifically the Sherman brothers.
All in all, this film is successful in that it gives us a glimpse not only behind the scenes of the film production of Mary Poppins, but into the life experiences and some of the inspirations of Travers’ creation. There are also some nice hidden gems for Disney fans to discover throughout the movie, like the sudden inclusion of maps of Florida in Walt’s office towards the end of the film. The ensemble cast does a great job, and I’m sure many of them will be up for awards as a result.
It’s a bit saccharine, but definitely worth a look!