Despite the audience already knowing the outcome, “Saving Mr. Banks” delights on every level that heartfelt Disney dramas tend to seek. The poignancy shines through the predictability and exceptional turns by both Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks provide appealing and engaging characters whose personal and professional struggles result in a triumphant transformation. The flashback-heavy style of storytelling isn’t the most creative way to express the turbulent childhood of P.L. Travers, but the steady reveal plays out like a mystery to connect the dots and explain the emotional significance of the author’s acclaimed creation. It doesn’t hurt that the brilliant music of the Sherman Brothers fills in the gaps.
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) made a promise to his young daughters that he would make a movie from the beloved stories of Mary Poppins. A whopping twenty years later, Disney’s efforts to convince inflexible, dogmatic author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the rights to her renowned English nanny seem to have finally paid off. But the stubborn, pessimistic Travers demands script approval as well as several other stringent stipulations that quickly impede the collaboration with Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Determined to fulfill his promise, Disney must find a way to connect with the embittered writer to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen.
The film is alternately warming, charming, hilarious, and infuriating. But surpassing all of the emotional manipulations and expected complications of theatrically tailoring Mary Poppins is the revisiting of the unforgettable music by the Sherman Brothers. When the script traverses formulaic territories, or when the story shifts into intangible remembrances, or even when Mr. Banks’ mending of a kite serves as the stirring adjuvant to persuade Travers to relinquish unenthusiasm, the familiar tunes from 1964’s “Mary Poppins” swoop in to guide the scenes. The soundtrack was so mesmerizing back then that “Saving Mr. Banks” can’t help but be strikingly strengthened by its return, even when less moving sequences enter the stage.
While Travers lives in a hellish world of her own design, in which quiet solitude is her only escape from the chore of humanly interaction, her past self, a little girl on an isolated farm in Australia, inhabits a world of near fantasy. The shattering of her reverie through failing role models and deteriorating fervor for games helps examine the inspirations behind the celebrated writer, much like “Shakespeare in Love” did for Shakespeare. Thompson is superb as the bitter woman with a permanent frown, who gradually reveals a troubled attachment to her fiction and, in turn, becomes more likeable for ultimately letting go and not giving in to its grip on her progress. It’s clear that Thompson’s research and preparation for the role grandly eclipses the supporting performances of Hanks, Schwartzman, and Novak, while questioning the presumably fictional existence of Giamatti’s character Ralph the chauffeur (which should be answered in “Mary Poppins, She Wrote,” the biography by Valerie Lawson).
The film is inundated with quirky one-liners and brief visual jokes (including Travers’ constant distaste for nearly every idea for the adaptation project, an enormous stuffed Mickey Mouse, and wriggling Jell-O shaped like the aforementioned murine), though most are the breezy, forgettable type expected from a Disney production. Some of it is necessary to combat the pervasive unpleasantness of the lead character. But just as Travers describes her savior, Mary Poppins, as “the enemy of whimsy and sentiment,” “Saving Mr. Banks” turns to those very tools to create an undeniably amusing exploration of the foundation and impact of the classic magical nanny.
- The Massie Twins