John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks isn’t far from being the perfect modern family film. Though not as G-rated magical as Mary Poppins, whose path to the big screen Banks explores, it’s a whimsical, well-rounded look at differing personalities, promises, and finding common ground. Despite the fairly blatant tie-in with Poppins’ forthcoming 50th anniversary, the companion film doesn’t come across as a stunt and instead builds on tried and true goods. Viewers who are fond of the Disney classic are in for a delightful peek behind the curtain while the uninitiated are sure to request that a copy be procured on the ride home.
The star of this new entry is author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), without whom there would be no flying, singing, spoonful-of-sugar-administering nanny. For the creator of such a friendly character, it’s a jolt to the system that she turns out to be a complete pill and doubly so when it’s one of cinema’s most likable actresses doling out the lumps. Flown from London to California to see if, after 20 years of shunning the various offers from Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), they can work out an adaptation agreeable to her particular tastes, Mrs. Travers (as she insists on being called) find fault with practically everything and everyone. The great mystery is why she’s so difficult, especially in her lack of awareness for others’ feelings and persistence in saying whatever rude thing is on her mind even when everyone around her is reacting with looks of shock.
We quickly discover that the key to Mrs. Travers is her Australian childhood, told in flashbacks that often fit organically into the story yet other times come across as random. A mix of extreme highs and lows, these formative experiences are essential in informing the main storyline, but also a bit weird. Though he looks the part, Colin Farrell may simply be miscast as her alcoholic banker father whose employment woes push his family out of their posh lodgings and gradually tests the sanity of his wife (The Lone Ranger’s Ruth Wilson). Fond of imagination sessions with his adoring daughter (Annie Rose Buckley), in which creative musings are exchanged that surely propelled her to become a writer, these moments are consistently difficult to grasp as is the true depth of the family’s predicament.
Wonky as these scenes may be, Saving Mr. Banks writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith nonetheless succeed in conveying their importance and sugarcoat them in the splendor of planning the Mary Poppins film. As Mrs. Travers brings her stubborn ways to the creative brain-trust of screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting brothers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman), it’s a joy to see Mary Poppins’ beloved songs in their infancy and other behind-the-scenes details that helped shape the final cut.
Likewise doing all he can to acquire his guest’s signature, Hanks is fine as Disney. He still looks a little too much like Tom Hanks to get across this other famous personality, but does the trick overall. The film, however, is wholly Thompson’s and she reigns over its proceedings like the legendary performer she is. There’s an immense pleasure in watching her iceberg demeanor slowly melt while still retaining a good deal of its original shape, whether that be in her casual chats with kind chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti) or in growing to accept the formerly appalling ideas of DaGradi and the Shermans. Then there’s the cherry on this rich desert, her reaction to the final product which is a true gift and all but guaranteed to inspire happy reflection on one’s own memories and experiences with Mary Poppins. Mission accomplished, House of Mouse. Mission accomplished indeed.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.
Saving Mr. Banks is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.