Saving Mr. Banks is a movie-watching experience that parallels its own story. It goes from cold to foreign to awkward to an amenable turn to resolution. The actual content of the film is fine—hell, it is even exemplary—but it struggles precisely because its genesis: Mary Poppins (and her creator P. L. Travers) exists. If you have any fond, bucolic, sepia-toned memories of the book or the movie, then it will be difficult to see the quality imbued in Saving Mr. Banks.
The movie tells the story of how Walt Disney romanced the film rights to Mary Poppins out of author P. L. Travers and joy back into her life. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, has been holding out on signing over the ability to make her beloved character (and sole source of income) into a movie for fear it gets butchered, bastardized, and turned into an animated Disney travesty by Disney himself, played by Tom Hanks. With money low, Travers agrees to travel to Los Angeles to reopen initial negotiations for production and monitor pre production.
(Right off the bat, you should know that this is a largely fictionalized account of what truly happened, and that isn’t what’s being reviewed here. There’s already a documentary out there that accurately tells the story, including how the core conceit of the film is false; Disney already had the rights when Travers went to Los Angeles. Also, Disney didn’t stick around at all to win her over, Travers was a lively person, and she never found catharsis regarding the film. So ignore all that.)
Travers is a disturbingly cold person. She lives on her own in England and somewhat callously fired her maid after realizing her Mary Poppins royalties were drying up. And she seems to have terrible beef with everyone in the world, including a mother and child on the flight over to California, her friendly Disney-assigned chauffeur, and, especially, Mickey Mouse. She hates pears, her production team, and generally everyone and everything who isn’t her.
Ignoring the slightly obvious foreshadowing for emotional resolution, it’s hard to look past the immense ability for Emma Thompson to embody this cruel British spinster. She is cold in just the right way; she doesn’t push anyone down or away from her, but instead she just expects everyone to come up to where she is. It’s a nuanced flavor of mean that is hard to pull off, but Thompson does it with aplomb.
Similarly great is Tom Hanks, who somehow shows us yet another distinct shade of fatherly, amicable, and charming all wrapped up in a mustachioed package. When he is the Disney you see in old marketing footage—the legendary figure waving and smiling to the crowds and cameras—Hanks is great, but when he takes things down a dire corner, it is pretty fantastic. You can see his eyes flit about and consider his responses, not just recite lines.
Truly, this is a film just stuffed with great performances. Paul Giamatti as the overly helpful and approachable driver for Travers is incredible at showing hidden pain; Colin Farrell changed my mind on what kind of actor he can be; and the young Travers by Annie Rose Buckley breaks your heart every time she loses her smile. Even the small roles like Disney’s secretary by Kathy Baker are done well.
Which is good news because the story has certain issues. The writing is actually quite good, but the beats to the story are a bit heavy handed. From the get-go, you can see where the story goes not just because you put two and two together about where Mary Poppins originated from but because the elements of hinting and elbow-nudging are just too on-the-nose.
The complexity of the beats, however, merits positive mention. For a Disney film, it goes in some rather dark places. Of course, it never ends up hitting the wall at the end of disaster, but it certainly takes longer than you’d expect for it to hit the brakes on the drama. It addresses many adult-child complications like relinquishing hurtful love and holding onto the good kind, letting emotions go freely when holding them out is easier, and childhood interpretations of trauma versus reality. It’s impressive.
The single greatest problem, though, is the fact that Mary Poppins is a book and movie many people already know and love. If the character was completely fictionalized for this film, this would be a quick and easy review: great movie! But throughout the entire two-hour runtime, it’s impossible to forget that Disney is fighting for something you love and Travers is fighting to keep it from you.
This turns Travers into the villain for the majority of the film, inserting a strange division between the young Travers and the elder one. The internal conflict as a viewer makes for a confusing experience. It’s worsened when you consider that artistically, Travers is still the hero in the charge for defending auteurship by the creator. Disney wants to take something made by someone else’s hands, mold it in his own vision, and then sell it for his profits.
There’s a scene towards the end that cements the notion that this film is actually re-up of the industrialized notion that “Disney always wins.” It’s a heartwarming sight and makes you realize the emotional resolution Travers found was well worth the trip. But it also reminds you that there’s no point in fighting a media giant, a corporation so big it has its own city. But don’t worry! They’re friendly! They have a mouse with pants!
If you can get past all that, then this is a great—maybe even terrific—film. It tells a delightfully grownup story through a cast of incredible actors and lets you tap into a part of your childhood nostalgia for Disney movies and characters you used to watch and love. But it’s that same emotional attachment that breaks the foundation of the movie. Saving Mr. Banks is a good film troubled by its own reality.
+ Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are amazing on their own but even better together
+ Tells a great story about some complex, adult issues
+ Funny, charming, and sprightly writing
– Doesn’t hide its corporate attachment
– Characterizations are warped by the fact that Mary Poppins already exists
Final Score: 7 out of 10