Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, & Colin Farrell. IMDB says: “Author P. L. Travers reflects on her difficult childhood while meeting with filmmaker Walt Disney during production for the adaptation of her novel, Mary Poppins.”
In 1961, author P.L. Travers (Thompson) came to the Los Angeles Disney studio in a last ditch effort for Walt Disney (Hanks) to woo her into signing him the rights to her beloved novel Mary Poppins. This film covers the few days Travers worked with Disney’s team to come to some sort of agreement on the treatment of the source material. Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of how the cherished Mary Poppins movie came to be, but also how Travers’ early life informed both her book and her resistance to the film’s production.
P.L. Travers is a woman as proper as she is stubborn. She finds Disney to be frivolous and can’t stand the thought of turning her book into a musical, and certainly won’t stand for any animation to be used. She’s extremely particular and isn’t shy when it comes to giving her firm opinion to Walt Disney, the writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), or the Sherman Brothers, Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert (B.J. Novak) who crafted all the original music for the film. It provides a genuinely humorous feel to Saving Mr. Banks and Thompson is perfect in the role. She is hilarious, but also does a fantastic job showing the wounded interior to this woman.
Paralleling the 1961 storyline, is Travers as a young girl living in Australia with her family. She adores her father (Farrell) completely, despite his flaws and these scenes add a heavy weight to what we’re seeing the adult Travers go through. Mary Poppins was a deeply personal book for her—not just a whimsy story, but something with emotionally weight.
One of the strengths of this film is going dark enough into her childhood story to inform on the present, while still keeping the current events light hearted enough to never get dreary. They weave in these two timelines almost perfectly, especially when they start to overlap within a single scene.
Another strength is that Mary Poppins is iconic, and watching these characters come up with the songs and details of the film was rather joyous to watch as someone who watched the musical throughout my childhood. Schwartzman and Novak are great in the roles of the composing brothers. Any time I get to hear the Coconut Records singer sing, I am on board.
The supporting cast all around is pretty strong. Tom Hanks as Disney was a wise choice, and of course he’s great because it’s Hanks, but his performance doesn’t stand out nearly as much as Thompson’s (and doesn’t touch his work in Captain Phillips). There’s also a subtle but great performance by Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver, who she slowly opens up to during the film. The biggest stand out in the supporting cast though is Colin Farrell who gives one of the best performances of his career as the troubled father.
I’ve seen the argument that this film is essentially Disney writing a love letter to itself about how magical it is. Yes, there’s certainly a bit of that going on, but this is really a story about P.L. Travers. She apparently wasn’t quite as pleased with the Mary Poppins movie as Saving Mr. Banks kind of makes it seem, but at the end it’s more about having peace with her life, not the movie. If you can push aside the resistance to write this off as a sugary, rose-tinted reenactment of events, you should appreciate the interesting story and character that’s worthy of a film.
When it comes down to it the only glaring omission of the film is an animated sequence.