I knew nothing about Saving Mr. Banks beyond that it was about the filming of the Disney version of Mary Poppins. However, it was also one of two movies showing on Christmas Day that I felt comfortable suggesting to my mother and grandmother. I was operating on the idea that “Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney” was a fairy safe way to go for a multi-generational movie viewing.
Fortunately, it turns out my hypothesis was correct, even if the film itself wasn’t quite what I was expecting. In fact, I have rarely been so happy to have my expectations proven wrong.
Rather than being about the actual filming of Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks acts almost as a biopic of author P.L. Travers, who wrote the original stories and for years refused to grant Disney the rights to the books. The movie bounces back and forth between Travers’s childhood in Australia, specifically her relationship with her father, and 1961, during the negotiations for those rights and the preproduction of the film.
It’s an interesting story, but what makes it really interesting are the people, which means that the quality of this movie rests almost solely on the actors’ shoulders. And as you probably expected, they’re all up to the task.
Tom Hanks is good as always, a genial and jolly Walt Disney who’s pretty much always “on,” always aware that he is, in fact, the face of his company just as much as any of his films. He somehow manages to be both kind and relentless in his efforts to please Travers and get the rights to Mary Poppins.
But the real heart of the movie lies with Emma Thompson as Travers. She’s a character who is stubborn, abrasive, cranky, and generally impolite to a lot of people, somebody it’s difficult to like at first glance. But Thompson does a brilliant job of making her relatable and sympathetic, even before we come to understand why she’s having such a hard time letting someone else touch her beloved character.
Travers and Disney clash memorably, but she spends much of her time with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman), who wrote the songs for Mary Poppins, and Ralph (Paul Giamatti), her driver while she’s in L.A.
Ralph is persistently optimistic and cheerful, no matter what Travers flings at him, a wonderful counterpoint to her character. DaGradi and the Sherman brothers have it harder, especially since Travers comes into the partnership so adamantly against them, but I loved watching their scenes together.
The flashbacks were a surprise, as was Colin Farrell as Travers Goff, P.L.’s loving, imaginative, and alcoholic father, who was also the inspiration for Mr. Banks in the Mary Poppins novels. He’s such a vibrant character that it’s easy to see why Travers loved and idolized him.
This movie also has one of my favorite explanations of storytelling I’ve ever heard, when Disney is talking to Travers near the end of the movie: that stories can bring hope, forgiveness, and redemption, again and again, even when real life falls tragically short.
That’s what resonated with me the most about the movie: this is a story about storytellers and creators, about what inspires us and shapes us and drives us, about how important stories and characters can be not only to the world at large, but to those who create them in the first place.
It wasn’t what I expected, no. It was so, so much better than that.