SAVING MR. BANKS
* * * *
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak
Director: John Lee Hancock
Running time: 2:05
Rated: PG-13; thematic elements including some unsettling images
In “Saving Mr. Banks,” P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is dismayed, distressed, disgusted, dyspeptic, disagreeable and determinedly disapproving.
And the source of the lady’s multitudinous distempers would be? Disney! As in Walt himself (Tom Hanks).
She views him as a pest and a threat. He’s been pestering her for 20 years to permit him to make a movie about her most cherished literary creation, Mary Poppins. She fears that should she ever relent and sign over the Poppins movie rights to this most persistent of suitors, he would inevitably trash her literary legacy. Disneyfied, Mary Poppins will be “cavorting and twinkling,” Travers proclaims peevishly. Mary Poppins, a most proper British nanny, does not cavort. Nor does she twinkle.
“Mary Poppins is not for sale!” Travers tells Walt. “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,” she huffs.
But when “Saving Mr. Banks” opens in 1961, Travers is in a financial bind. Royalties from her books have dried up. She might have to sell her London home. So with the greatest reluctance she decides to fly to Hollywood to see whether she can pressure Disney to do the right (and remunerative for her) thing by Poppins. So the battle is joined. And what a battle it turns out to be. English hauteur and vinegar versus Hollywood charm and cheer. Thompson is fierce and formidable, Hanks is warm and winning — the two of them give wonderful performances.
And yes, that is to say Hanks’ work as Walt is every bit as fine as his performance in the terrific “Captain Phillips,” though the two characters are very different men.
But there’s far more to “Saving Mr. Banks” than an epic, and comic, clash of wills. Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), working from a script credited to Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, alternates the ’60s scenes with episodes from Travers’ childhood in Australia in the early 1900s. In those scenes, Travers-as-child played by 11-year-old Australian actress Annie Buckley, is the adored daughter of a charming, irresponsible alcoholic played with aching sincerity by Colin Farrell. She worships her father and is devastated as his drinking and related health problems slowly destroy him.
That trauma, the movie is at pains to show, shaped the wary and extremely self-protective woman Travers became, which in turn shaped Mary Poppins. A family member who arrives to try to salvage the family situation, a no-nonsense, take-charge aunt (Rachel Griffiths) in a black outfit with a carpet bag that would become a Poppins trademark decades later, is revealed to be the inspiration for Travers’ iconic nanny.
The picture charts the gradual thawing of Travers’ icy disdain for all things Disney. The thaw takes place particularly in scenes in which she squabbles with brother-songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively) as they create such tunes as “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Their music has charms to soothe even this most flinty of souls.
Despite her resistance, the “Mary Poppins” movie gets made. Released in 1964, it’s Disneyfied in ways Travers feared. (She was right to think Dick Van Dyke was all wrong for chimney sweep Bert. However, she approved the hiring of Julie Andrews.)
The sweet and teary ending is at odds with reality. In real life, Travers loathed the movie, but that’s not the way “Mr. Banks” tells it. But so what? “Mr. Banks” is the Disney version. And as such it’s a pure delight.