Review: Disney Recreates Magic of 'Mary Poppins' in 'Saving Mr. Banks'
by Jeremy Kirk
December 19, 2013
In 1964 Walt Disney brought magic to the silver screen with Mary Poppins, a wondrous story that has been fascinating and awing film lovers for nearly 50 years. But it wasn't quite as breezy a task getting that film adapted from P.L. Travers' original, 1934 novel. Saving Mr. Banks tells that story in what is undoubtedly a Disney package. It's light, bubbly, and brings out enough sentimentality to fill ten Disney filmographies, certainly a dose of medicine that goes down better with a grain, or spoonful, of salt. Yet, with a pair of outstanding performances leading the emotional way, there's magic to find, perhaps as much as there is to find in Mary Poppins. Accurate or not, the legend it tells absolutely warms the heart and wets the eyes.
Emma Thompson, a powerhouse as always, plays Travers, a writer whose first work, "Mary Poppins," enthralled audiences but has been sitting on book shelves for the better part of 30 years. Needless to say, Travers needs money. A shred of financial hope comes from Mr. Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks. Disney's daughter is part of the collective fascinated by this story of the legendary nanny, and he's made her a promise, to bring Travers' magical nanny to the big screen.
Unfortunately, financial troubles or not, Travers is a woman of integrity, and she isn't just going to allow some Hollywood producer to turn her work into another cartoon. Still, the author's agent convinces her to travel to Los Angeles and meet with Disney to get a better understanding of how he's going to adapt her novel. Immediately pushing back against every Disney decision, the two butts heads, yet the film casually and elegantly undresses the motives each have for how they envision a Mary Poppins film.
Granted, there's little drama about whether or not Mary Poppins got made. Everyone knows that. Yet director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith draw us into so much more we didn't even know. The film transcends its melodramatic core at just about every turn, creating a fascinating behind the scenes look at one of the most beloved films of all time as well as addressing the deeper message of art. What Disney sees in "Mary Poppins" is not what Travers sees in the story, and what each tells us about the character develops them solidly.
Half of Saving Mr. Banks shows us, in fact, what Mary Poppins, the story and the character, means to Travers. Flashbacks to happier times that grew dark in the author's childhood not only create real-world events that show us exactly where the story came from, it lays the groundwork for the woman's adulthood, no-nonsense and outwardly cold. It's this groundwork that justifies the back-and-forth Travers had with Disney in the two weeks she spent in Los Angeles. Hancock and crew do sharp, precise work in balancing the film between the two worlds.
Both are breathtakingly created, the glitzy, glamorous 1960s Hollywood as well as the dusty, fly-ridden Australia of the 1900s. The film moves between time and place with ease. Neither clothes nor set take away from the story, and they don't overshadow it either. All of the genuine emotion that comes from Travers' and Disney's stories hits with subtle charm, quite a feat when it's considered just how saccharine this very Disney-fied story could have been.
A lot of that credit goes to Thompson and Hanks, who pull off true chemistry despite their conflicting points. Thompson is stern, as forceful as ever to pull off the strong-headedness of Travers, yet her moments of softness are all the more honest and affecting. Thompson gives one of the best performances of the year here, and that's saying something standing across the room from Hanks most of the time. As Walt Disney, he's as charming as ever, the only actor working today who could have pulled the man, the myth, and the legend off with such casual and very real alignment.
Their supporting cast is equally convincing. Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman make up Disney's screen and songwriting team on Mary Poppins, the group voted most likely to annoy Mrs. Travers. Paul Giamatti plays Travers' driver while she's in LA, an ancillary character in most stories but one here that deserves an actor of Giamatti's caliber. Of course, he nails it. The surprising turns come from Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson as the adults in Travers' flashbacks. They both capture the importance and the drama that shaped this life.
"This life" being the one presented here before us by the Walt Disney company. Saving Mr. Banks is, after all, a depiction of the events, and though the film's accuracy and, sure, integrity have been called into question, the famous quote about "printing the legend" has rarely been more apt. Disney brought magic into people's lives, a healthy dose of that spoonful of sugar on a regular basis. We do know that he and Travers, the medicine to be sure, met somewhere in the middle 50 years ago to give us one of the greatest spoonfuls of all time. With Saving Mr. Banks, Disney proves even in more cynical times, magic can still come through.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10
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