As a dramatized version of the real-life story behind a beloved classic film, “Saving Mr. Banks” is as pleasant and gentle as it wants to be. It becomes sentimental at times, but its warm sincerity feels genuine, and it is entertainingly mixed with acerbic wits mainly coming from its unflappable heroine who ironically refuses any sugarcoating on her dear novel in spite of being the author of famous children’s books.
The writer in question is P.L. Travers(Emma Thompson), who wrote “Mary Poppins” and the following sequels during 1934-88. Although Walt Disney(Tom Hanks) had been trying to buy the film right for “Mary Poppins” since he promised to his young daughters that he would make their favorite book into a movie someday, Travers refused to sell the right to Disney because she did not want her book turned into an animation feature film, and she had stood by her position for more than 20 years.
However, in 1961, she begins to reconsider his offer seriously despite her remaining reluctance. Her economic situation has recently been difficult due to the decreased sale of her books, so Travers accepts Disney’s offer in the end, but she does not bend to him easily; before selling the right, she is going to make it sure that her book will be adapted into a feature film as she wants, and then she will sign the paper only if she is satisfied.
When she arrives in LA to meet Disney and visit his studio, Disney is ready to please her in every way possible to him, but this prim middle-aged Australian lady is not so pleased about lots of things. She does not like the hot, sunny atmosphere of LA, and she is not very kind to her genial driver, and she stands aghast at her hotel room filled with not only a fruit basket but also a bunch of Disney dolls including, of course, Mickey Mouse.
And Disney and his studio people suffer her constant flow of demands and criticisms right from their first meeting day at the studio. While she is not very amused to know that the movie is going to be a musical, she rejects many small and big details in the script, costumes, and production design just because they are not what she envisioned while writing her book. Besides, she complains about the negative depiction of Mr. Banks in the script, the bank employee father of the Banks family in her book.
The movie gradually reveals the reason behind her reluctance and stubbornness as going back and forth between the scenes depicting this difficult process in 1961 and the scenes showing Travers’ unhappy childhood in Australia in 1906. Even when she was a child, young Travers(Annie Rose Buckley), nicknamed ‘Ginty’ by her dear dad(Colin Farrell), already learned that life has many disappointments through the problems in her household; her father, who worked at a local bank, was a good father encouraging her imagination, but he had several serious problems including his alcoholism, and that drove his struggling wife Margaret(Annie Rose Bukcley) to manic depression at one point.
While we come to see how the memories of her hard childhood life including her aunt Ellie(Rachel Griffiths) inspired her book, the movie maintains its light tone through several delightful scenes where Don DaGradi(Bradley Whitford), the co-screenplay writer of “Mary Poppins”, and Richard and Robert Sherman(Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), who would win two Oscars for their music, try to get Travers’ approval. Several familiar songs including “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds” are played and sung by them during these moments, and that will certainly take you back to the sweet memories of the 1964 film.
Travers is still unenthusiastic and displeased about many things, but she cannot help herself from being a little opened to the gentle, smiling gesture of Disney and his world. On one day, Disney manages to take her to Disneyland to show his goodwill, and, though she is not willing to admit it, she becomes a little nicer in her attitude, and there is a lovely moment when the Sherman brothers succeeds at last in getting Travers’ full approval on one of their highlight songs.
Based on the screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the director John Lee Hancock made a film good enough to be watched along with “Mary Poppins”. The real-life story between Disney and Travers was actually more bitter than what is depicted in the film(Travers was very unhappy about the end result, so she never sold the film rights of her other Mary Poppins books until her death), but the movie works as a drama about two people clashing with each other for their respective artistic visions and then finding something common between them through their conflict.
The movie is equipped with handsome production details thanks to the full support from Disney Studio(well, can you possibly imagine any other way?), and I liked the performances from its talented cast members. While Emma Thompson is probably going to get Oscar-nominated in the next week for her enjoyable performance, Tom Hanks is flawless as Walt Disney with his spot-on mannerisms. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are fun to watch as the Sherman Brothers, and Paul Giamatti looks sunnier and jollier than usual as Travers’ understanding chauffeur, and young actor Annie Rose Buckley did a good job of generating the gravitas in the story along with her adult co-actors.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is your average cotton candy film you can expect from Disney, and I must say that is not always a bad thing. The result is more or less than being mildly sweet, but it is served with a spoonful of medicine to remind us of that undeniable difference between fantasy and reality, and that is why the finale involving with the LA premiere of “Mary Poppins” feels both sweet and touching. Life is indeed disappointing as Travers says in the movie and we should not forget about that, but isn’t it nice to have a little taste of fantasy sometimes? I am sure even Travers or her famous nanny won’t disagree to that.