Sometimes the backstory to a creative work is more intriguing than the actual finished product. Not all of the time, of course, but chances are the route in which, say, J.M. Barrie took to bring the 1911 novel “Peter Pan” to life holds some sizzle. Others might be surprised with the creative hoops writer Anita Loos may have gone through to lift her beloved book “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” from page to screen in the 1950s—and with Marilyn Monroe on the marquee.
And so it goes. It’s all in the drama that happens to get the drama made.
This must have been something that screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith saw as a stellar opportunity when they took on the precarious task of penning Saving Mr. Banks. Precarious because the writers don’t boast a lengthy list of screenwriting credits and, let’s face it, writing a film for a studio (Disney) that chronicles how that studio took something as revered as “Mary Poppins” to the big screen could have easily morphed into a cringe-worthy, self-congratulatory affair.
But here’s the good news: Saving Mr. Banks is nothing like that. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be moved. There’s something there—on screen—a kind of warmth that doesn’t devolve into just sugar-coated sentiment. You become invested in the characters and their journey. For relatively unknown screenwriters, they add surprising depth to a tale that chronicles the three-week period in the lives of Walt Disney and “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers as they attempt to join forces.
Saving Mr. Banks certainly ranks up there as the season’s best outings but take note: None of it would work so wonderfully if two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson had not been cast in the lead. As Travers, the actress disappears into the role of the prickly London-based author who, for 20 years, held Disney at arm’s length, refusing to sign off on the film rights of her acclaimed 1934 book. (There were four Poppins tales in all.) Thompson may be one of the few actresses of her generation—Meryl Streep, Judi Dench also come to mind—who can effectively “act” with just the arch of an eyebrow. She does all that (and much more) here as her character, forced to accept that her book sales have dipped, reluctantly agrees to finally meet with Disney and his team and see where the creative road takes them.
Some of the film’s early scenes, in which Travers first arrives on the Disney lot in 1961, are remarkably played out. Thompson effectively captures Travers’ fussiness over handing over her work to a studio that’s developed, what she calls, “empty pap” and “flim flam;” a money-making machine intent on butchering her tale and reworking her beloved Mary until its spoonfed to the masses as a “brain full of fluff” and something that twinkles “toward a happy ending.”
(Oh, Ms. Thompson, you do deserve that Golden Globe nomination—yes, you do.)
With remarkably believable nuance, Tom Hanks walks steady here playing Disney. In fact, he and Thompson may have quite possibly created the year’s most believable on-screen couple—even though there isn’t a hint of romantic spark between the two characters. The fun is in witnessing Disney’s attempts to understand Travers and melt her icy resolve.
There’s a backstory to that, too, and the film finds most of its heart in a series of flashbacks that takes the audience deeper into Travers’ life as a young girl (then Helen Lyndon Goff) living in rural Australia in 1906 with her two younger sisters, a befuddled mother and an alcoholic father (a fine turn by Colin Farrell) she can’t help but idolize. The genesis of “Mary Poppins” happens during Travers’ early years, and it seems the more the author comes ever closer to relinquishing her hold on her work in real time, the more she finds herself “at war with herself” as once-buried emotions resurface.
Director John Lee Hancock, who delivered sentiment in The Rookie—and who was also scoffed at for the sentiment he brought to The Blind Side—doesn’t tip the scales too much in one direction in this outing. The journey in which we become most invested, thankfully, is Travers’. Sure, it’s a delight to see the inner workings of how “Mary Poppins” was made—all that music and a cast here of supporting players that are spot on—but the real pay off is how smoothly we become invested in Travers’ personal journey.
You become acutely aware of this toward the end of the film in which Hanks, as Disney, opens up to Travers and expounds upon his own life. It’s some fine acting and somehow brings it all home … that the challenging memories of the past, lodged somewhere in the nether regions of the heart and mind, are offered the best relief—and release for that matter—with the help of the imagination. Not as an escape, but as a tool for catharsis. This isn’t just Travers’ journey, the filmmakers hint—but one we all are, whether we like it or not, invited to travel on.
Saving Mr. Banks ★ ★ ★ 1/2 (out of four)
With Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Kathy Baker, Rachel Griffiths and Annie Rose Buckley. Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes.