Spoiler alert: Mary Poppins gets made. But it’s the long and frustrating journey to reach the final product that is the subject of Saving Mr. Banks, a refreshingly insightful look into the mind of the troubled author who wrote the book. This could have easily been two hours of Disney patting itself on the back and plugging its own merchandise (which it still does, of course), but director John Lee Hancock and his team have created a fine comedy/drama that should draw wide appeal.
Emma Thompson plays author P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. For two decades she has denied the rights to Disney to create a film adaptation, but the year is now 1961 and sales have dwindled and royalties have dried up. Her agent strongly recommends she give in to Disney, and she agrees to do so under one major condition: she has complete and final say over the script. Despising virtually every idea Disney’s talent throws at her (making it a musical, utilizing animation, generally existing), she proves to be a major pain to work with.
A considerable amount of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay is devoted to flashbacks of Travers’ upbringing and why she grasped so tight to the Mary Poppins story. She had a rough relationship with her alcoholic father (Farrell) and his legacy made an impenetrable impression on her. Some serious themes are dealt with (it’s PG-13 for a reason – alcoholism, depression, sickness, suicide) and they help to humanize an otherwise unlikable wretch of a woman. The sequences involving Walt Disney (Hanks) and his crew serve as mostly comedy, as the songwriters can do no right and Travers nitpicks every single aspect of the screenplay. You gradually realize that no screen version of this story could be to her liking, and in truth she never did like the final version of the film.
Hanks and Thompson are both fantastic. Rather than playing Disney as an idol, Hanks plays his as a real character and you can’t help but sympathize with his situation, especially when he keeps thinking all the fires have been put out. Thompson brings excellent depth to a complicated character. When she finally gives in to Walt Disney’s reason for making the film, it’s very effective.
Saving Mr. Banks proves not to be the fluff piece it could have (and shouldn’t have) been, but rather an intriguing and entertaining character study and behind-the-scenes saga about the making of one of Disney’s most successful films. It makes you want to go back and revisit Mary Poppins, and that in itself is the highest compliment one can pay the film.
Note: Be sure to stay for the credits, as some of the real audio from P.L. Travers’ sessions is played. It’s safe to say that Thompson nailed the role.
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 125 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.
Theatrical Release: December 13, 2013 (Limited) / December 20, 2013 (Wide)
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Written by: Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Paul Giamatti