Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney film.
Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney film about a Disney film, Mary Poppins, and while it's not necessarily a brutally honest retelling of the struggles that Walt Disney himself had in bringing the beloved book to the big screen it is, at its very essence, a film with all the spirit, heart and enthusiasm that one has come to expect from a film with the name Disney attached to it.
It is a testament to director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) that he has fashioned the film with a style and substance that elicits memories of 1964's Mary Poppins, a film that Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) himself had long desired to create and a film that became one of the studios biggest successes upon its release. It may be to its detriment that the film is being touted as an Oscar contender, not because it's not awards worthy but because the film looks and feels like the kind of film that Disney created before the Hollywood machinery dictated a focus on box-office or awards or both.
For those unfamiliar, it was a 20-year journey before Disney could finally convince Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to even consider what could easily be defined as a tempestuous and uncomfortable collaboration with Disney on bringing her beloved and modestly autobiographical book to life.
The collaboration does not come easily. In what was a rarity at the time, Disney relented on multiple conditions in an effort to make the film happen including giving Mrs. Travers final script approval. She also is unwavering in her demand that the film not be an animated feature or a musical.
I guess we know how that one went, eh?
Eventually, she begins to work with Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), the screenwriter, and composers Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak). From excising the color red from the film to demanding rewrite after rewrite, Travers becomes the nightmare that everyone feared she would be.
Slowly, however, we learn the story of her Australian childhood with a loyal yet alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), upon whom it is obvious that Mr. Banks has always been based in her mind.
Saving Mr. Banks isn't a heavy film, though it is perhaps a bit more substantial than one might expect given the foundation of its material. Emma Thompson's Mrs. Travers, she insists upon being called Mrs. despite being unmarried, is always a bit of an ice queen whose obnoxiousness may very well even wear down viewers of the film. Yet, the film very much depends upon Thompson's nicely disciplined and layered performance that slowly melts away the ice and reveals, moreso in the film than what actually happened in real life, her true humanity.
If you're like me, you also found yourself wondering if even a consummate actor like Tom Hanks could really disappear inside the character of Walt Disney. Rest assured, Hanks succeeds quite grandly and with such a transparent enthusiasm that you also can't help but feel like Hanks is showing us the Disney wonder and magic that created the entire Disney empire.
The film's truly revelatory performance, though nothing with this actor should surprise, comes from Colin Farrell as the author's father. In one could have so easily been not much more than a one-note caricature, Farrell infuses Travers Goff with a richness that makes this on par with some of Farrell's best work.
There will be many who consider Saving Mr. Banks to be nothing more than Disney selling Disney without an ounce of the darkness behind the mouse ears and the skeletons known to be in Disney's closet. While this is an ever so modestly legit argument, it's hard not to give Disney quite a bit of credit for telling a compelling story that doesn't always shine the brightest light on Disney himself and the studio.
As one might expect, Saving Mr. Banks also poors on the sap far more than it needs to and far more than it ought to in the service of the story. Whether it's Hanks waxing eloquently about storytelling or Travers emoting quite nicely as she shares with her chauffeur (an effective Paul Giamatti) a list of some of history's most inspiring persons with disabilities in an effort to encourage him about his own daughter in a wheelchair.
But, it all really comes down to "Is Saving Mr. Banks an entertaining film?," because the real truth is that not too many of us head to the movie theater and fork over the big bucks in search of a history lesson.
While certainly not flawless, Saving Mr. Banks will most likely enchant diehard Disney fans and most certainly those who will appreciate its focus on a film that remains one of Disney's most enduring favorites.
The film is rated PG-13 and may not necessarily be the film with which you spend your Christmas holiday movie time if you have small children, but for other families and couples alike it's certainly a warm and life-affirming film that was recently recognized with a Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award honoring it for its positive and inspiring message and values.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic