Saving Mr. Banks is about the making of the beloved Disney classic Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, it’s also about how its author Pamela “P.L.” Travers was inspired to write the book of the same name. This shouldn’t be a bad thing; one film can easily manager two storylines, particularly ones revealing perhaps unknown depths of another text. Unfortunately again, that isn’t achieved in Saving Mr. Banks.
Emma Thompson portrays Travers as a persnickety author anxious about the idea of one Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) taking her cherished novel and filling it with cartoons and other perceived nonsense. After two decades of asking, Travers submits, in no small part due to financial constraints. Yet, she holds a power over Disney and his crew of creators. Travers is able to reject any idea she finds unworthy; any plot turn, design or even color.
These parts are a joy. Thompson, who may be a smidge to tic-heavy, and Hanks are genuinely delightful together. Thompson’s no non-sense attitude and Hanks’ all-smiles, hug-giving, first-name-only sentimentality clash to reliably humorous effect. Every scene between the two of them, or even the ones featuring Thompson and the other Disney staff members (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak) hum sweetly and effortlessly. It’s more than the kick of seeing a famous feature put together, it’s the little triumphs each character finds along the way. The clever spin on a phrase in a song. A bet about a carousel ride. Making a surprise new bond with someone. These work.
The chunk of flashbacks that make up almost half the movie are the opposite. They are thudding and cheap. We get Colin Farrell wandering around as Travers’ father, a drunk, though a kind one. Farrell smiles and slops in equal amounts, given nothing in between to do. He plays with his daughters, his wife frets, he falls over; wash, repeat. The emotional girth this is meant to give to Travers can be seen, it’s far from felt. It rings with all of the dramatic blandness that director John Lee Hancock brought to The Blind Side.
There needs to be a term for this kind of happening in which one half of the movie is so weak that it keeps the film from being recommendable. Perhaps it can be Mr. Banks-ing it?
Saving Mr. Banks opens in limited release in Seattle tomorrow.