I went to “Saving Mr. Banks” filled with, if not quite negative thoughts, then at least a feeling of ambivalence. Yet I came out of it in fine fettle, even humming a few bars of “A Spoonful of Sugar.” I am no fan of the Disney film “Mary Poppins,” one of the biggest hits of 1964, and still a movie that just about everyone I know still recalls fondly. Nor do I generally like songs in my movies. Nor did I have any clue as to what the title meant – Who is Mr. Banks, I wondered.
Well, I still think it’s not a very good title (Yes, I did see “Poppins” some years ago, but I sure didn’t recall it was about the Banks family). But almost from frame one, I fell under the spell of this story-behind-the-story of how “Mary Poppins” almost wasn’t made. It seems that the book’s author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), was quite the crank, and so protective of her magical floating nanny, she wasn’t going to let anyone mess with her. Especially not this Walt Disney fellow (Tom Hanks), who, in her mind, just made frivolous cartoons.
Cinema history books reveal that it took Disney 20 years to convince the British writer (born in Australia) to even visit his studio, to get her to meet with the scripter and songwriters who were trying to fashion the film, and to get her to sign over the rights to her beloved creation.
Though “Saving Mr. Banks” is about one of the most popular kids’ films in the world, it really isn’t a film for kids. This one’s for the adults who loved it and who remember it and who, though they might have heard that there some problems making it, sure don’t know how big those problems were.
Thompson gets one of the juiciest parts she’s ever had in Travers, who insisted that everyone call her Mrs. Travers, not Pamela (and certainly not Pam), even while Disney insisted that everyone call him Walt. And though Hanks plays it low key, Thompson goes for the rafters, and beyond.
This is the story of the stepping-on-egg-shells relationship between Travers and Disney, as well as the one she had with the film’s songwriters – the brothers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J Novak and Jason Schwartzman) – and one of its adapters, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), in a cramped rehearsal-writing room.
I’ve got a feeling that things have been cleaned up a bit in this telling of it, because it’s kind of fun to watch her literally take over the writing sessions, insisting that “This is my film and I shall have it my way,” while everyone around her is bursting with great creative ideas but fuming with frustration. The drama of this film is that she had to be there, had to be able to nix this or that, or she wouldn’t assign over those rights.
It’s quite fascinating to see how “Mary Poppins” took shape, and how, obviously, she was finally won over (it was the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”), but “Saving Mr. Banks” falters a bit with an overuse of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood (which include a wonderful performance by Colin Farrell as her seemingly happy but troubled father). But all is made up for with joyous, crackling turns from Novak and Schwartzman, along with little side ingredients like a snatch of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s version of “Heigh-ho” on the soundtrack.
To set the record straight, Thompson stars in this film, and Hanks is in a supporting role. And even though it’s the actors who bring it all alive, this is really a celebration of storytelling, by those who use the page and by those who use the screen. Note: Make sure to stay for the end credits. There’s a neat surprise in the middle of them.
SAVING MR. BANKS
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith; directed by John Lee Hancock
With Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti