“Saving Mr. Banks” tells the story behind a classic
By Mike Dyer, Senior Writer
Now in theaters is a film that, on the surface, is about the making of a film that today is considered a classic. Beneath that surface lies a film bathed in its period that isn’t afraid to make you laugh, cry, or remind us why we love going to the movies. “Saving Mr. Banks” is the story of Walt Disney trying to acquire the film rights to the “Mary Poppins” books. Little did Disney know when he started this 20 year endeavor how much of Pamela L. Travers was in her stories and little did Pamela L. Travers know just how beloved her “Mary Poppins” would become. While the subject matter appeals to Disney history buffs such as myself, the film proves enjoyable on its own for the casual viewer. Combine a good cast with a good story and you get a good movie, but combine an A-list cast, a period piece, and fantastic set design set around a true story with legendary people and you get a great movie!
The film catches up with author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) at home in London 1961. Her agent (Ronan Vibert) informs the sheltered Travers that she faces financial ruin if she doesn’t write another novel. Her only other option would be to sell the film rights to her work, which Walt Disney has been trying to acquire for the past 20 years. A reluctant Travers comes to Hollywood to meet with screen writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), musicians Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak), and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The production team is quick to realize how protective Travers is of her work as well as how particular she is as she begins to criticize every minute detail of the tentative film. As Travers and the Disney staff start to negotiate she starts to recall her childhood experiences growing up in Australia, particularly the relationship with her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).
From the first frame, a vintage “Walt Disney Productions” title card, the viewer can find themselves in 1961. The spectacle of the cinematography lies in the practical use of locations rather than sound stages. An impressive amount of work had to be done to Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios in Burbank to make them appear as they would have in 1961. Director John Lee Hancock was able to cultivate the visual appeal with the A-List cast in honest performances. Thompson’s Travers interpretation is spot on and the banter between her and Hanks almost feels more like a documentary rather than a feature. This being the first time seeing Disney portrayed on the silver screen, I was surprised by a cough first audible sound to come from his character. This is perhaps an allusion to his eventual battle with lung cancer that would claim his life in 1966. Additional cast includes Paul Giamatti, as Travers’ happy-hearted chauffer Ralph, and newcomer Annie Rose Buckley, who portrays a young Travers growing up in Australia. Buckley is fantastically charming, especially with her on screen father, Colin Farrell, whose character captures the imagination of his daughter in a lively, memorable performance.
Accompanying the cast is the film’s original score by Thomas Newman, which was recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score. The film’s music isn’t afraid to pay homage to the original “Mary Poppins” score that is so memorable to our generation, and beyond that it plays to the strength of the characters and settings of the film. In its own way, it proves just as memorable as the original.
Beneath all the obvious layers of the first rate cast, score, and visual appeal lies a story of struggle and promise. “Saving Mr. Banks” has everything a Disney die hard could possibly love, but its message isn’t about the magic of “Mary Poppins”, it’s in the coming of age story of Travers that is both touching and tragic. It is this story that proves why Travers was so reluctant to give anyone the film rights to her books as her characters are inspired by the characters in her own life. Walt Disney and P.L. Travers were so opposite that they had to find some kind of common thread before “Mary Poppins” could begin. Their commonality lies in the fact that both of them were story tellers trying to bring some joy into the world. As Walt Disney puts it in the film,“Story tellers restore order with imagination.” As I put it, “Saving Mr. Banks” restores order to a studio and an audience that might need a little reminder on just how magical film can be and how timeless they can become.