“Terrificness.” With apologies to Pamela Travers, much like the Sherman Brothers, I have to make up a word to describe “Saving Mr. Banks” and the word is “terrificness.” “Terrificness” occurs when a wonderful story, amazing acting, fantastic music and outstanding direction combine to form one fabulous movie.
“Saving Mr. Banks,” directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is the story of how P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” was finally brought to the screen. As we learn from Mr. Disney, it was a 20-year pursuit to acquire the rights to her beloved novel, based on a promise he’d made to his daughters to bring “Mary” to life. Finally forced by her literary agent to consider the offer to help overcome the the dire straits of her financial situation, Mrs. Travers consents to an in-person discussion with Disney before making a decision about the rights one way or the other. She travels from her London home to Los Angeles to meet with him and the film’s writers…Don DaGradi and Robert and Richard Sherman. Once there, an irritable and irritating Mrs. Travers pretty much disagrees with everything the writers are doing…the music, the casting of Dick Van Dyke, and most especially, the use of any animation. Although she obviously comes around, interestingly enough, the animated penguins are almost the deal-breaker (and in real life are something for which she never forgave Disney or herself for allowing).
Emma Thompson, as P.L. Travers, is wonderful at capturing not only Travers’ prickliness, but also her heart. Thompson is second to none when it comes to exchanging quips, sarcasm or put-downs. But she is in a class by herself in the silent moments, in knowing just how to move her hands or compose her face. It’s the stillness that one remembers. The scenes when she is alone in her room, entering the hotel bar, or just looking out the window…all are extremely powerful…and she’s acting with no one but the camera. It’s astounding.
As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks has tricky waters to navigate. Much of the viewing audience grew up with the real Walt Disney…as the host of his Sunday television series or even introducing some of his movies. We think we know him. Although Hanks gives Disney some kind of Midwestern twang, which doesn’t quite ring true, he most definitely captures Disney’s essence…his joy at film-making and the real pride he feels for his work. Watching him stride through his kingdom, Disneyland, and make no mistake, he is king, one feels like they are watching the authentic Walt at work. Hanks’ scenes with Thompson are especially good…the scenes in his office…and most especially the scenes with Travers in her home, where he talks about his own humble beginnings. It’s a truly touching moment when he finally figures out why Travers is so protective of “Mary Poppins,” something of which Travers might not even be aware. Disney was very good at making us believe that despite his wealth, he was an “everyman.” In Hanks, he has the perfect receptacle for that spirit. “Saving Mr. Banks” makes me want to learn more about Mr. Disney, and, in part, that’s due to Tom Hanks’ portrayal.
The supporting cast of Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, B.J. Novak as Robert Sherman and Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman is very strong. Novak is especially good as the more exasperated of the threesome, but all three convey the joy and hard work of writing and surprisingly all three of them can actually sing. Paul Giamatti has a small part as Travers’ LA limo driver. In less capable hands this role could have been overly treacley, but somehow Giamatti manages to make him human without going over the top.
For all the wonderment of Disneyland, Disney and “Mary Poppins,” the real heart and soul of the movie lie in the scenes of Travers’ past…growing up in Australia. As Travers reflects on her life, be prepared to have a tissue handy, because these scenes are heart-breaking. In fact, I wondered if the reason for Travers’ initial dislike of California was its resemblance in climate to Australia which made her think of home…a home that was filled with so much childhood pain. Travers grows up with two loving parents. Her mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson), loves her, but because of her ne’er do well husband is forced to be the family disciplinarian, finally reaching her breaking point in an emotionally charged scene. Travers, called Ginty by her father, has an extremely close relationship with him. Her father is a wonderful storyteller and seems to be the impetus for Travers’ imagination. Unfortunately he is an alcoholic. His drinking costs him his prestigious banking job; he is demoted and the family is forced to leave their spacious house for a home in the Australian farm country, where he is the manager for a bank. As her father, Colin Farrell is nothing short of amazing. His work with Annie Rose Buckley (Ginty) astonishes. Farrell infuses his character with so much love, it feels like a real relationship. His character’s pain at the failure he’s become and the harm he has caused is palpable, and without knowing it, is probably the reason for the adult P.L. Travers’ damaged psyche. Once again, one has to ask, where do these young actors come from? Buckley is simply great. And Colin Farrell? “Saving Mr. Banks” would be the poorer without him. He hasn’t given a performance like this in years, if ever, and one hopes he will be recognized come awards’ time.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is one of the year’s best movies. Everything about it works. It doesn’t try to rip at your emotions…it just happens. In short, it’s full of “terrificness.”