Saving Mr. Banks: Making Mary Poppins Through a Glass Disney!

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The story of how Walt Disney persuaded P.L. Travers to sell him the movie rights to Mary Poppins is the subject of Saving Mr. Banks. It’s a tale of saving in many respects – it saved Mrs. Travers from bankruptcy; saved Mr. Disney from breaking a promise to his daughters, and its Christmas season release may have saved Disney Studios from missing out on awards nominations – and possible wins. For all that, it’s a remarkably effective, surprisingly direct movie with a lot of superb characters interacting in ways you might not have expected in a Disney movie.

Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) has to be persuaded by her agent to fly to America and hear Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) pitch to obtain the movie rights to her novel, Mary Poppins. There is no more money and sales of her books have dried up.

At the airport, she is met by the good-natured Ralph (Paul Giamatti) who will be her driver while she’s in Los Angeles. He’s a little too talkative for her, but worse lies ahead – her suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel is packed to overflowing with Disney toys and a massive fruit basket. Her meeting with Walt (he wants everyone to call him Walt) leaves her even more unimpressed – and she does not hide her hostility at all.

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She spends the next two weeks mostly disapproving of Don DaGradi’s (Bradley Whitford) script and being appalled by Robert (B.L. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) Sherman’s songs. Even a trip to Disneyland with Walt Disney cannot blunt her prickly temperament – though Ralph is wearing her down by just being his sweet-natured self.

As we follow the negotiations for the movie rights to Mary Poppins, there is a secondary arc that explores Mrs. Travers’ childhood in Australia. Young Helen Goff (Travers’ real name) and her sister find themselves on a farm in the wilds of Australia where her alcoholic father, Travers (Colin Farrell), is being given his late chance as a bank manager in a very small town.

Though he clearly loves his wife (Ruth Wilson) and daughters – young Helen is played with ferocious reality by Annie Rose Buckley – he is a slave to the bottle and when things go horribly and inevitably wrong for him, his wife’s sister, Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) arrives to set things back on the right path. She looks astonishingly familiar.

Most of the events that occur in Saving Mr. Banks actually happened – some of them attested to by a real tape recording of one of the creative sessions and some of DaGradi’s drawings made during those sessions appear under the closing credits. The thing is thta, as you might expect, those events are filtered through the Disney lens – though the film does a better job of showing both Disney’s charm and empathy and his iron resolve than you might think.

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Saving Mr. Banks is a beautifully made film – the cinematography is fine; odd little details (like the hotel providing an excellent cup of tea) add immeasurably to the film’s believability; the casting is perfect (Buckley is a real find), and the writing (by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) is mostly  terrific. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) does such a good job that you won’t notice that Saving Mr. Banks runs a little over two hours.

Both Hanks and Thompson do some of their finest work – though she has to take a thoroughly unlikable character and make her not only likable, but endearing. Hanks, on the other hand, only (only!) has to show the mix of charm, intelligence, empathy and resolve (the velvet glove over the iron fist) that made Walt a success. The only thing we need to remember is that, as rooted in truth as the film may be, it has been crafted from a specific point of view that has influenced every frame.

There are moments during the flashbacks when the film flirts with mawkishness – and a sequence in which Walt plays psychoanalyst to Mrs. Travers is just too hokey – but overall, Saving Mr. Banks is smart, funny and dramatic in all the right places to make it a fine evening’s entertainment. On the Big Drink Scale, I still had a little over a third of my big drink left as the credits began to roll.

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Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios