Saving Mr. Banks was a movie I was ready to hate from the get go. Another one of those overly sentimental late December releases begging for your consideration. It didn’t help that the trailer made it look like a big Disney puff piece. Of course this was only intensified by casting America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks. Yet, when I sat down to watch Saving Mr. Banks I genuinely got the feeling that this was a story that someone wanted to tell. Maybe the story was slightly distorted and maybe there was a bit more sugar than necessary, but I liked the story. The story of Mary Poppins difficult transition from book to beloved film classic is indeed a story worth telling.
The film is set in 1961, where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has finally convinced the very stubborn author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to travel from London to L.A. in hopes to turn her book into a movie. Working alongside a peppy screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and two energetic songwriters (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), Travers isn’t too keen on handing off her beloved characters. Particularly, Travers is concerned about the direction of the Mr. Banks character, the father of the children on the novel. The reason this stirs up so much controversy is because this is a character that Travers has based on her own amiable at times, alcoholic father (played by Colin Farrell in flashbacks). The result is an emotional game of cat-and-mouse with Disney and his dwarf-like men on one side and the emotionally closed off P.L. Travers on the other.
The setting and tone here is pitch perfect. There’s whimsy around every corner in the Disney Studio of the 1960s, highlighted nicely by a musical score made up of variations from the original Marry Poppins soundtrack. The mood is light and warm hearted, only delving into true drama when Travers recalls her ailing father as a troubled child in rural Australia. Emma Thompson plays the kind of character you love to hate. Travers is bitter and uptight to the nicest people, but you still feel sorry for her for losing her pappy. Plus, there’s never any doubt that Uncle Walt ain’t gonna turn that around with his Disney magic. Somehow this is actually problem I had with the movie.
Walt Disney is too damn nice. I have trouble believing that anyone, let alone the tyrannical Walt Disney could have been this warm hearted to someone who was so uncooperative in such a crucial business transaction. The man built an empire and I have a lot of trouble believing he did that by being all puppies and sunshine every day of the week. This movie portrays Disney as a saint with no sins. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Hanks is great, but this movie feels like an enchanted facade. Had this been an entirely fictional story about a fictional book becoming a fictional movie, maybe I wouldn’t have a problem. Unfortunately, I do have a problem. I feel like if a movie is advertised as biographical, it has a certain responsibility to give us the truth. Maybe they got Travers right, but no way in hell they got Disney right.
Does Saving Mr. Banks deserve Oscar nominations? No, I wouldn’t put it at that caliber. It is a very polished movie with likable characters and an engaging story, but had it come out in June no one would care. The truth of the matter is it has been roped into Awards fair because of its convenient release date and has a great chance of getting nominations. That’s the way of this small world after all.