“You don’t know what she means to me.”
It’s clear from the start of John Lee Hancock’ “Saving Mr. Banks” that “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), for all the dizzy sweetness of her most famous creation, doesn’t have much joy in her own life. She doesn’t really have much of anything, actually – no family, no friends, and a dwindling fortune she’s suddenly forced to finally bolster by (maybe) selling the film rights for her books to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) – but she does have a deep love for both Poppins and her Banks family, even if that gets in the way of judicious business dealings. As it so happens, Travers and her books have been the object of Walt’s cinematic desires for nearly two decades, and the visionary studio head wants nothing more than he wants to bring Mary to the big screen. He loves Mary, his screenwriter loves Mary, his songwriting duo loves Mary, and he thinks he knows how to bring her off the page so that moviegoers everywhere can love Mary.
Travers, however, isn’t biting (even if she is inclined to bite people’s heads clean off).
Set in 1964, Hancock’s film brings to life the story behind the beloved story, chronicling the fraught relationship between the difficult Travers and the dreamy Disney as the pair tango (and tangle) over just how Mary can make the jump to the big screen. Strapped for cash, Travers journeys to sunny Los Angeles (which the Aussie attempting to pass herself off as a Brit predictably hated) to try to wrest the rights away from Disney or make it so he will only make a production she expressly approves of. What ultimately happens is, well, a bit of a surprise (at least, if you’re willing to temporarily forget that “Mary Poppins” did make it to the big screen).
“Saving Mr. Banks” is principally preoccupied with Travers’ nuttiness and her unwilling to yield to just about any suggestion doled out by the Disney crew, and is thus tasked with sharing just why the author was so harsh (and so cuckoo). The film attempts to explain Travers’ prickly nature by reaching back to her traumatic childhood, necessitating the use of frequent flashbacks to her younger years in the dusty Australian countryside. It’s a contrivance that works suitably well, especially as the film requires some sort of reasoning why a person would grow up to be so cold that they’d shove a giant Mickey Mouse doll into a corner (this happens).
Somewhat surprisingly, “Saving Mr. Banks” is nothing if not gentle, and the film’s treatment of Travers’ alcoholic father cunningly stays within that spirit. Robert Goff Travers (yes, P.L.’s eventual name change is discussed in the film and, no, it’s not confusing within the context of the film), as charmingly played by Colin Farrell, is never portrayed as some sort of outsized monster, but a grown man with a terrible problem he feels powerless to control. The film does try to slowly reveal that Travers’ affection for the fictional Banks family is actually rooted in her affection for her own fractured family, but while Hancock’s direction and Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s script try to make that seem like some kind of staggering plot twist, it’s obvious from the start that’s where things are going. While it’s not a manipulative choice, it does make “Saving Mr. Banks” try to appear clever in ways that it is unable to (and that it, quite frankly, shouldn’t even attempt).
The film is uncomfortably plagued by its own looming legacy – the real-life P.L. Travers, who was apparently a lot more than just a pill, notoriously hated the film version of her beloved book (especially all that damn animation) to the point that she never allowed Disney to make another film about their beloved Mary Poppins – a hard fact that dilutes some of the feature’s prodigious power. As a fairy tale in its own right, however, “Saving Mr. Banks” works, and works damn well. Consider it a feature about preventing heartache and denial in the world, complete with a misunderstood villain and a magical wizard, and the film zips right by in a totally pleasing manner.
“Saving Mr. Banks” also benefits from a string of solid performances from its stacked cast. Hanks’ portrayal of Disney is whimsical, compelling stuff, and he easily stays away from parody in order to deliver a solid turn as the visionary. It may not be his best work this year – that’s still “Captain Phillips” – but it’s still a big feather in his large hat. Thompson’s talent and simmering charm allow the prickly Travers to come across as multi-faceted and rich even when she’s acting like a complete maniac (her early demand that the color red not appear anywhere in the film is particularly bonkers, but Thompson even infuses that with some relatability).
As the prolific Sherman brothers, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are quite a dashing pair, with Novak taking on the mantel of the more sardonic of the duo (his Robert Sherman is prone to pushing Travers) and as Richard Sherman, Schwartzman charmingly serving as the more solicitous of the pair (who knew Schwartzman could be this sweet and earnest?). The Shermans are tasked, alongside an incredibly amusing Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi, with getting the film’s script up to snuff, and the interactions between the four are consistently hilarious and (appropriately!) bizarre.
Paul Giamatti also makes the most of a relatively small part as Travers’ Los Angeles driver, and his deeply human discussions with Travers (which, of course, have to evolve over time as the author slowly breaks down) inject the film with surprisingly sweet emotion.
“Saving Mr. Banks” has all of the pieces in place to earmark it as a masterpiece – a stirring story, real life roots, wonderful performances, and a rich visual background – but it doesn’t fully deliver on its promise. There’s charm and delight here, to be sure, but it is occasionally obscured by attempts to make it somehow darker, deeper, and more dramatic. It’s a realistic fairy tale, fair and square, and the film works best when it allows its whimsy and sweetness to mingle with the harsh light of real life, not falling too squarely to either side. It’s a biopic that benefits from yes, a spoonful of sugar to help it all go down.
SCORE: 7.9 / 10
"Saving Mr. Banks" will be released on December 20th.