Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
There is a wonderful, oft-told story about P.L. Travers, author of the “Mary Poppins” series, showing up at the Disney adaptation’s 1964 Hollywood premiere.
In spite of working with (and exhausting and frustrating and annoying) the movie’s creators, she had not been invited to the premiere. After the screening, she found Walt Disney, who had tried for 20 years to get her to let him make her beloved nanny into a movie.
When she started in on what still needed to be tweaked, he reportedly said, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.” Word has it they never spoke again.
Sadly, this amazing exchange is not in “Saving Mr. Banks,” a movie that nonetheless works far better than one might expect considering it is a Disney movie about ol’ Walt himself.
Refusing to break a promise to his daughters, Walt Disney, played with charm, wit and a terrific impression of Walt’s speech pattern by Tom Hanks, has been after Travers to let him adapt her work for the screen for 20 years. It is only when she is about out of money that she agrees to sit in with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford, as Bradley Whitford as ever) and the legendary songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively).
Refusing to sign away the rights just yet, she puts everyone through the wringer: no songs, no animation and why is Mary so cheery all the time?
Disney thinks this is all a bit rich from “the woman who sent a nanny with a flying umbrella to save the children.”
This is, of course, completely wrong: “You think Mary Poppins came to save the children?” Travers says, with more than a little concern. “Oh dear.”
Directed by John Lee Hancock (who, as the director of “The Blind Side,” knows a thing or three about jerking tears) “Saving Mr. Banks,” is, as the title might indicate, a story about fathers.
Travers, who seems every inch the proper English lady, was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia, the daughter of a banker, Travers Goff, who dreams big, adores his family and cannot help drinking himself out of one job after another. Colin Farrell, far better in these sorts of character parts than as a leading man, shows Goff to be a kind man but a slave to the bottle. Goff died of pneumonia when his daughter was 7; she never completely got over it.
Here is the clever thing: Strip away the daddy issues and “Saving Mr. Banks” is a smart story about how and why one should stick to one’s artistic guns.
Travers made the Disney creative team record their conversations so there would be no mistaking her desires. To her credit, she takes a ton of convincing, protecting her creation like a fierce mother. And to Disney’s credit, he never lets up. These are two people who are used to ruling over their worlds and getting what they want.
(Hancock and “Banks” screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith got access to those tapes, while Disney-the-studio was also reportedly quite generous with vintage images of Walt’s office and Disneyland, which clearly aided cinematographer John Schwartzman in getting a sunny period feel.)
Does the treacle eventually ooze? Yes; Travers and Walt have more in common than either thinks. Does the movie soft-pedal Travers’ reaction to the final product, not to mention Disney’s famously conservative politics? Well, sure.
But “Saving Mr. Banks” is, oddly, exactly the sort of movie Disney-the-studio should be putting more time and money into making and marketing: A thoughtful, live action movie without superheroes, with emotional strokes that are simple enough for, say, those 10 and up to understand and sophisticated enough to keep their parents involved. At its best, “Saving Mr. Banks” is classic Disney, if not quite a Disney classic.