Saving Mr. Banks

Directed By: John Lee Hancock

Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Rachel Griffiths, Ruth Wilson, and Colin Farrell

"Winds in the east, mist coming in.
Like somethin' is brewin' and bout to begin.
Can't put me finger on what lies in store.
But I fear what's to happen all happened before.
-Travers Goff (Colin Farrell)

It would be an understatement to say that our generation of moviegoers is a jaded, cynical one.  Anything that is cheery in disposition is often seen as sugary and instantly unappealing.  With this in mind, it's no shock that the 60's is not a decade that's given the credit it deserves as a solid period in cinema, even if the works coming from filmmakers served only to distract from the tumultuous times marked by the era.  That's why you don't hear that much about films like Mary Poppins these days.  With the Disney comedy-drama Saving Mr. Banks arriving in theaters this weekend, I'm sure many moviegoers are brushing this film aside for other, edgier flicks.  Well, let me assure you that the Disney film chronicling the making of Mary Poppins has a sharp edge.  Her name is Emma Thompson.

It's 1961.  For the past twenty years, acclaimed author P.L. Travers (Thompson) has denied entertainment mogul Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) the right to make her beloved Mary Poppins into a film.  Now that she is broke, Mrs. Travers finally decides to explore the opportunity of selling the rights to him for a movie.  Given that she would have the right to approve the script under any potential agreement, she's finally willing to come to the table.  At the urging of her manager, she flies to Los Angeles for two weeks to visit the Walt Disney studio and see what monstrosity Disney has concocted for her family Mary Poppins.  Travers has no idea how much she'll be immersed in the wonderful world of Disney and just how much she'll see Mickey Mouse.

Upon her arrival, Mrs. Travers is picked up at the airport by her chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti).  Despite Ralph's efforts, they don't exactly hit it off.  When she arrives at the studio, she meets her co-script writer Don Dagradi (Bradley Whitford) and the film's composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak).  Not terribly interested in chatting it up with her creative team, she heads straight for Disney's office where she informs him that she is not immediately signing over the rights to make the film and will make a decision based on her time at the studio.  In both her actions and words, Mrs. Travers makes it very clear that this going to be one bumpy creative process as Disney and his team try to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen, especially when it comes to the portrayal of patriarch George Banks.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Travers has flashbacks of her childhood in Australia, growing up with her parents Travers and Margaret Goff (Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson), and her time with Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), the real woman who inspired Mary Poppins.

Now that we're half a century out from the 60's, Hollywood is revisiting this underestimated era of film by making films about the making of films (pun intended).  With Hitchcock last year, we got a fun peek behind the curtain of the Master of Suspense’s Psycho.  With Saving Mr. Banks this year, we get an intriguing look at the world of Mary Poppins and how a spoonful of sugar didn't help the medicine go down for author P.L. Travers.  With smart direction from The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks offers plenty of heart, but it's not the overly cheery experience Disney is marketing.  As I mentioned previously, Emma Thompson is the sharp edge of the film and brings quite a bit of dark humor to the picture. 

Delving back into the world of a classic film like Mary Poppins is no small endeavor, and I must commend John Lee Hancock for crafting this ode to the world's favorite nanny in a very impactful way.  He reminds us of the magic of this Disney movie without overdoing it.  Baking Easter eggs into the film, he rekindles one generation's love for this classic and introduces a whole new generation to it altogether.  As we explore the making of the film, he doesn't hone in on quintessentially Disney musical numbers like "Chim Chim Cher-ee" or "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" but the tunes that really flesh out the character of George Banks and, by default, P.L. Travers.  This approach lends itself to paying homage to the original but creating a rich, infectious cinematic experience that stands as its own film.

For quite a while now, I've been pondering an apt comparison to Emma Thompson's sharp-tongued performance as P.L. Travers.  The only screen performance that comes to mind is Meryl Streep's iconic turn as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada back in 2006.  Thompson's performance in Saving Mr. Banks is the antidote to Mickey Mouse and the wonderful world of Disney.  It would be an understatement to call her character a witch with heels.  While she frequently berates her supporting cast members on screen with her caustic commentary, Thompson's greatest assets are her facial expressions.  If looks could kill, her performance as P.L. Travers would have cost us many lives.  There's just so much disdain in each and every one of her facial expressions and her overall body language.  Though I could go on and on about why the domineering side of Thompson's character is so richly entertaining, I would be remiss if I didn't say that she does have a softer, cuddlier side and introduces us to this side subtly throughout the film.  For this outstanding performance, Emma Thompson deserves all the love coming her way this awards season.

The supporting cast members do an excellent job as well in Saving Mr. Banks. Fresh from a daring performance in Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks portrays the person whom no other man in the world could do justice the way he can.  As Walt Disney, Hanks brings an uncanny charm and one great big smile to the film.  More importantly, he brings a savvy businessman who will not give up in the face of Travers's stubbornness.  As Thompson’s alcoholic father Travers Goff, Colin Farrell has a central yet tragic role in the film.  After all, his character is the basis for Mr. Banks.  In this role, Farrell gives a rather spontaneous performance in which he could be blithe in one moment and irate in the next.  As limousine chauffeur Ralph, Paul Giamatti brings a lot of genuine heart to the film in a rather earnest performance.  Finally, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are pretty amusing in their roles as the Sherman brothers who are habitually tormented by Thompson's Travers.

What's most incredible about Saving Mr. Banks is how true to form these performances are.  Travers had a nasty habit of recording all her sessions at the Disney studio, and this is addressed in the film.  During the end credits, we get to hear some of the real recordings of Travers and her interactions with the folks at Disney.  Listening to the tapes, I must say that it's pretty surreal how accurate these performances are.  Moreover, the cast and crew of Saving Mr. Banks deliver a film that does exactly what movies are intended to do, magically whisk us away from the minutiae of our lives and take us on a fun ride.  In this case, it just happens to be a true one.  John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks gets a sober rating.