Mickey Mouse, meet Mary Poppins.
As a studio, Walt Disney Pictures has a long and storied history. Having turned out more than 300 movies since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, the House of Mouse has no shortage of behind the scenes tales to tell. And yet, in choosing to examine Walt Disney’s dogged pursuit of the film rights to P.L. Travers’ beloved “Mary Poppins” children’s novels they have served up perhaps even more interesting an account than if we were to watch Disney’s own rise to success. After all, who among us could resist the man who created the happiest place on Earth? And why would we want to?
Enter P.L. Travers. As portrayed by Emma Thompson she is prickly and cantankerous, but not without good reason. When we meet Travers she has been resolutely turning down Disney’s offers to buy the rights for some 20 years, but with book sales slow and money running out, she finds that her options are few. And so, Travers agrees to meet with Disney, and sign over the rights only with script approval, and after feeling certain that he will not destroy her creations, namely, Mary Poppins and the Banks family, not least among them the titular Mr. Banks.
Conversely, Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney is jovial and larger than life. Not a hint of stiffness exists within in him, but he is quite as driven to make the film as Travers is to prevent him from doing so. Why? The film tells us that he had promised his daughters that he would make “Mary Poppins” and didn’t want to go back on his word to them.
Logic tells us that some dollar signs may have piqued his interest as well, but this being a Disney film about the man himself, it’s only natural that he should appear every inch the hero--a jolly, loving man, the only kind of man capable of creating a dream factory like Disney. The film has come under fire from some critics for glossing over the more colorful elements of Travers’ life and times, with some suggesting it leaves her character not as fully rounded as she could be. While that’s certainly a valid observation, what could have been included doesn’t much impact what actually made it into the film.
Fortunately, Emma Thompson (as she is always wont to do) delivers an engaging performance that is a pointed contrast to Hanks’ take on Disney, and that works, even if the film does put forth a narrow view of the woman behind “Mary Poppins”. This is, after all a tale of the genesis of the "Mary Poppins" film, not a Travers biopic, no matter how much of her past life we are shown.
“Saving Mr. Banks” somehow captures that Disney magic we all remember from our animated favorites as children. It’s whimsical and comedic, and at times a little bit sad. All of the performers involved are veterans, and it is a simple joy to watch them at play, even as they do something as mundane as a table read complete with bickering about whether or not the word “number” should be included in the address on a slug line that no viewer will ever see.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a fun, fascinating portrait of the two weeks that saw the clash of Disney and Travers before their visions were united to create one of the most beloved children’s films of all time.