Walt Disney movies have always been susceptible to the criticism that they sugarcoat, sentimentalize and otherwise bowdlerize their source material. “Saving Mr. Banks,” a remarkably entertaining, sun-dappled movie about the struggle to get P.L. Travers’ classic “Mary Poppins” on the screen, is actually less guilty than it initially appears, but it doesn't matter anyway. Whether Disney is giving itself the Disney treatment or not, this is one of the best movies of the year. Director John Lee Hancock’s follow-up to “The Blind Side” is a well-crafted, smartly written and above all, enormously entertaining story. Disney is getting the Disney treatment here, and if the result isn’t exactly a docudrama, we’ll all just have to get over that.
“The Blind Side” did not generate a great deal of suspense. Most viewers knew Michael Oher ended up playing in the NFL before they bought their tickets. Similarly, most viewers probably know that “Mary Poppins” was an Oscar-winning hit for Disney and will walk in knowing the movie will get made. The story here is what’s really at the heart of Travers’ creation, why she wrote it, and how she learns to deal with her past - sort of primal scream therapy on film. And here the screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith does serve up a fair number of surprises.
Ungrateful, snooty and downright rude, Travers is presented as a surly pain in the ass who seems to genuinely resent sunshine. After 20 years of Walt Disney pursuing the movie rights to “Mary Poppins,” she is only considering selling now because she needs money. She flies to Los Angeles on Disney’s dollar, is picked up at the airport by a well-meaning studio driver (a particularly ingratiating Paul Giamatti) and checked in to the Beverly Hills Hilton, where her room has been filled with fruit baskets and stuffed (Disney) animals. Travers considers all of this a nuisance. Emma Thompson plays Travers with an upper lip of cast iron, but more, with an absolutely unapologetic prickliness that would intimidate a porcupine.
Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney is genuinely bemused and befuddled by Travers’ antagonism. After all, she stands to make a lot of much-needed money, and is being treated with a deference that most novelists getting their feet wet in Hollywood would kill for.
As Disney, Hanks embodies everything we want to believe about the creator of Mickey Mouse - cuddly and warm-hearted, insistent, persistent and just wily enough to be endearing. Disney had a dark side, but “Saving Mr. Banks” is content to allude to Disney’s difficult relationship with a stern father he nonetheless loved. One might note the name over the studio’s door. It might be asking too much to expect Disney or any studio to shine too piercing a light on its exalted founder. And although Hanks neither looks nor sounds particularly like Walt Disney, what other major American actor could summon the peculiarly American persona of the creator of Mickey Mouse?
Travers doesn’t want “Mary Poppins” to be a musical, hates animation and at one point actually decrees that the color red should not be in the movie. Of course the fact remains that the Mary Poppins books are dark, even chilling, and Mary Poppins herself is far ruder in the books than her Julie Andrews incarnation, but Travers doesn’t seem to understand that there is an unspoken transaction between writer and reader, and that once a book is published, the readers form their own impressions, and ultimately, those may be the ones that count.
It could be argued successfully that “Saving Mr. Banks” relies too heavily on parallel storytelling. The screenplay alternates between Travers’ creative headbutting sessions and flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, which peel back like the layers of an onion, gradually revealing the elements from the author’s past that shaped her famous literary creation, particularly a no-nonsense (and apparently wholly fictitious) aunt played by Rachel Griffith who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mary Poppins. And it is these scenes, in which the love story between the young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) and her doomed, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) slowly unfold, that provide a counterpoint to the bristly adult. The viewer will quickly realize that the point of the movie is not how a movie was made, but what made the author write the book it was based on. And as the backstory unfolds, the viewer will also notice that the material is darker than it appears.
“Saving Mr. Banks” features a host of superb supporting performances, from Giamatti, Farrell, Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don Dagradi and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak who shine as “Mary Poppins” songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. (Needless to say Thomas Newman’s sentimental score gets frequent lifts from the classic songs from “Mary Poppins.”)
John Schwartzman’s cinematography adroitly manages the sleight-of-hand of making Hollywood sun-drenching look different from Australian outback sun-drenching while giving the entire production a sentimental look. In point of fact, that may be the point. “Saving Mr. Banks” is a vastly less sentimental movie than it looks. The movie’s golden glow is like the proverbial spoonful of sugar, helping the medicine go down.
"Saving Mr. Banks" opens on Friday, December 20th, and will be playing at theaters across the Capital District. Check local listings for specific showtimes and admission prices.