In 1961, author P.L. Travers came to Los Angeles for two weeks at the request of Walt Disney to discuss selling the rights to her best-selling book, Mary Poppins. It took 20 years of wooing and offers (and the final advisement of her agent to stave off financial woes) before the author finally decided to make the trip. But P.L. Travers had absolutely no interest in selling the rights for Mary Poppins to Walt, fearing that he would turn a character very dear to her heart into a “Disney-fied” joke. And more importantly, that the meaning behind the story would be lost between the songs, dance numbers and animated sequences. Yes, P.L. Travers came to Los Angeles with one goal in mind: to stop Walt’s relentless efforts to obtain the rights by saying no whenever possible.
To many, “Saving Mr. Banks” looks like a making-of story about 1964’s “Mary Poppins.” But in all truthfulness, this story does not follow the film’s production process at all. Instead it covers two different story lines: the 1961 pre-production meetings for “Mary Poppins” at Disney Studios in Burbank, CA; and the childhood struggles of P.L. Travers and her family in 1906 Australia. As the production team of screenwriter Don DaGradi and songwriting duo The Sherman Brothers make their attempts to appease Mrs. Travers, we are shown moments from her childhood. Many of these moments are the interactions with her father, Travers Robert Goff, a banker in a small countryside town. Travers has a special connection with his daughter, always encouraging her to use her imagination. But he also has his own demons, battling alcoholism that affects his productivity at work and relationship with his wife. At age 7, P.L. was blindly indifferent to what was really going on with her father. As his health deteriorates and he is unable to work any longer, the environment at home takes a turn for the worse. These experiences molded Mrs. Travers into a very stubborn and guarded woman. She wrote Mary Poppins as an homage to what she wished could have happened in her own childhood. Even Walt Disney failed to recognize what the story was really about, believing that Mary Poppins came there to save the children. When actually, she came to save Mr. Banks himself.
“Saving Mr. Banks” stars two-time Academy Award® winner Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and two-time Academy Award® winner Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. The film co-stars Colin Farrell as the author’s father, Travers Robert Goff; Jason Schwartzman & B.J. Novak as songwriters Richard & Robert Sherman; Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi; Paul Giamatti as limo driver Ralph; Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff; Rachel Griffiths as Aunt Ellie; and lastly, newcomer Annie Rose Buckley as Ginty. The film was directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side.”)
WHAT WORKED: In a film like “Saving Mr. Banks,” one that is full of so much emotion and nostalgia (especially if you are a fan of Disney or “Mary Poppins”), everything worked well. The performances by all of the actors were fantastic, and nobody felt out of place. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of P.L. Travers was very heartfelt and genuine. She really embraced the character’s backstory and made it feel personal. Given that this was the first time Walt Disney had ever been portrayed in a motion picture, Tom Hanks made a smart move in not trying to impersonate or make a caricature of Walt. Instead, he worked on capturing his essence and charm, throwing in small details like his cough. And Colin Farrell, who never appears on screen with the rest of the main actors given his role, carried the 1906 storyline through. The love for his daughter that is displayed on screen is convincing, as is his regret upon realizing his failures.
On the technical aspects, “Saving Mr. Banks” truly excels. The Cinematography by John Schwartzman (“Seabiscuit”) is stunning, covering sweeping Australian landscapes, intimate offices at Disney Studios, and a grand premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The segment shot at Disneyland was particularly noteworthy, with vibrant colors and shine that makes the location look truly magical. The Art Direction by Lauren Polizzi (“Star Trek Into Darkness”) and Costume Design by Daniel Orlandi (“Cinderella Man”) did an excellent job of immersing the viewers in the early 1900s outback as well as 1960s Los Angeles. Everything was meticulously detailed and accurate. But what stood out the most for me was the Score, written by eleven-time Oscar® nominee Thomas Newman (“WALL-E,” “Finding Nemo”). Newman has a very distinct style, but he has covered a number of different genres including drama, action, animated and fantasy. He heavily uses string instruments and slow piano melodies to evoke a flood of emotion over a scene. As my all-time favorite composer, I feel this is his best work yet.
WHAT DID NOT WORK: Honestly, I can hardly find anything to complain about in this film. Obviously, whenever a story is based on true events, it is hard to know what was really said or might have actually happened, and what is simply the work of dramatic fiction. I suppose my only complaint is the introduction of Aunt Ellie, played by Rachel Griffiths, felt rushed and almost overlooked. Her character is the direct inspiration for the “Mary Poppins” character, and I felt as though her presence in the story was not significant enough.
THE WRAP-UP: The film is excellent, and should not be missed. While it is a Disney movie, it is rated PG-13 and there are many adult themes addressed. I would not recommend it for young children, but there is no reason that anyone in their teens up to their elderly years could not enjoy it. The tone and feeling of the movie reminds me of 2004’s “Finding Neverland,” and like that film, “Saving Mr. Banks” inspires wonder and also brings you to tears. Although the Golden Globes® overlooked the film (besides the nomination for Emma Thompson), I expect the film to garner several Oscar® nominations.
SCORE: 9/10 – Highly recommended. You will not be disappointed.