Saving Mr. Banks: London Review

An affecting if somewhat soft-soaped comedy drama, elevated by excellent performances.

Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney trying to convince Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers to let him adapt "Mary Poppins" in this story inspired by Hollywood history.

According to this based-on-a-true-story account of the making of Mary Poppins, when Walt Disney offered to buy the rights to P.L. Travers’ book, the author insisted on just two things: that she would retain script approval and that there would be no animation. History shows that she didn’t exactly get her way, at least as far as the animation was concerned. But dancing penguins aside, Saving Mr. Banks suggests that Travers put up a good fight, going sturdy-pump-to-brogue with Disney, then one of the most powerful studio heads in the business.

Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s ingenious script, which famously featured on Franklin Leonard’s Black List, adroitly builds layers on top of this central conflict, using flashbacks to reveal how bleak events in Pamela Lyndon Travers’ childhood nourished the cheerful story of Mary Poppins, making her so protective of her work. The finished product, directed by John Lee Hancock, is a cunningly effective, if rather on-the-nose study of the transformation of pain into art, marbled with moments of high comedy.

Some contrarians will balk at the highly sympathetic depiction of Walt Disney himself (played by Tom Hanks), hardly a surprise given that the logo of the company he founded opens the credits. However, audiences will swallow this tasty spoonful of sugar without complaint. A most delightful box-office result should be expected when it opens in the U.S. Dec. 13 (two weeks after Britain), a frame well chosen to maximize the family market and position the film in the awards-season calendar.  

STORY: Tom Hanks on Becoming Walt Disney for 'Saving Mr. Banks' 

In a part once mooted for Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson takes charge of the central role of the waspish P.L. Travers with an authority that makes you wonder how anybody else could ever have been considered. Firing off withering, perfectly timed put-downs in a musical Received Pronunciation accent (disguising the character’s Australian origins), with the confident stride of a governess tidying up the nursery, she’s a fearsome figure of feminine steeliness. There’s an echo here of Sandra Bullock’s Tiger Mom in Hancock’s The Blind Side, except that Travers is considerably less maternal, despite being a children’s writer. When a woman with a babe-in-arms on the plane to Los Angeles offers to move her own hand luggage to make room for Travers’ bag, she offers no thanks and only asks if “the child will be a nuisance” on the flight.

Only a glancing allusion in the script betrays that the real Travers did in fact have an adopted child, but then there’s quite a lot else about her, presumably in the interests of making the character more accessible, that scribes Marcel and Smith have declined to incorporate. Apparently, there were also rumored affairs with women and an interest in mysticism and the occult, though there is only a shot here of her reading a book by guru George Gurdjieff to show for it. The end credits thank author Valerie Lawson for inspiration from her respected biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, but a warts-and-all portrait was never going to happen on a film with this big a budget and this much visibility at stake.

That goes double or more for the portrait drawn of Walt Disney. The twinkly-eyed, avuncular figure incarnated by a mustachioed Hanks -- who only for a fleeting moment shows off a glower worthy of a mafia crime boss ordering a hit -- couldn’t be further from the negative depictions of Disney in, say, Richard Schickel’s scathing biography The Disney Version or the recent Philip Glass opera The Perfect American.

Some no doubt will call this a whitewash, but looked at from the viewpoint of the studio and the estate of Walt Disney, Saving Mr. Banks presents a grittier version of Disney than one might have expected 10 or even five years ago. Okay, so there’s no mention here of strike-breaking or informing on suspected Communists to the FBI, but at least it’s conceded that not everyone was enchanted by Walt’s magic kingdom, and that there were murky shadows in his own biography, like an abusive father. Heck, they even show him smoking, and that’s way worse than being an FBI informant these days.

Taken strictly on its own terms, Saving Mr. Banks works exceedingly well as mainstream entertainment. At first a classic fish out of water, with her haughty Old World ways when she lands in laid-back, informal 1961 Hollywood, Mrs. Travers (as she insists on being called) is gradually won over by Walt and staff. Three men in particular are tasked with coaxing her script approval and trust: writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), composer Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and his lyricist brother Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak). The last two really have their work cut out for them given Travers is only mildly less resistant to having songs in the film than she is to animation.

As they slug it out in the rehearsal room over the script (she even quibbles over the wording of the scene headings), golden-hued flashbacks to Travers’ own Australian childhood uncover the scars that her writing of Mary Poppins would try to heal. Like Mr. Banks in the book, Pamela’s father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell, doing his best work for some time), was a bank manager who had a temper at times, but there the parallels end. An alcoholic whose irresponsibility pulled his family down the social scale, he’s seen as a child-man always eager to participate in their games. Clearly, Mary Poppins the character inherited something from him, as she did from Pamela’s aunt (Rachel Griffiths), who shows up with a carpetbag full of wonders just when the family most needs help. Ultimately, Mary Poppins turns out to be an idealized version of Pamela Travers, nee Helen Goff, herself, and it’s only when Disney figures out how to lift the veil hanging over her own backstory that he can persuade her to let go of her creation.

The scene where Disney plays amateur shrink to secure the signature he needs is the script’s clumsiest, most irritating misstep, despite the laudable efforts of Hanks and Thompson to save it. Profoundly anachronistic with its smattering of psychobabble notions, it represents a shameless bit of self-flattery aimed at the industry and, no doubt, awards bodies with lines like “It's what we storytellers do: We restore order with imagination.” Likewise, more anachronism in the service of sappiness is deployed elsewhere when Travers presents her chauffeur (Paul Giamatti, otherwise endearing) with a list of famous people -- Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo, etc. -- with disabilities to provide inspiration for his wheelchair-bound daughter. Oh come on, barely anyone outside Mexico or France and a few art buffs knew who Frida Kahlo was in 1961.

However, these are faults most mainstream viewers probably won’t notice or even mind, especially if they read Saving Mr. Banks as a charming work of fiction, a creation not that much more fantastical than stories about nannies that fly. Folks will swallow anything if it’s done well enough, a point charmingly made near the film's end, when Travers attends the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. For the most part, the camera holds on Travers' face, bathed in the reflected bluish light from the screen, as she cries at the parts we’ve learned meant the most to her, smiles at the jokes and winces during the dancing penguins.

As well as the outstanding performances by the leads and supporting cast, sturdy craft contributions from all departments add polish, while the use of what looks like the real Disney Burbank facility adds veracity. (The Australian locales, however, are far less convincing-looking.) The picture gets an extra lift from the extensive use of the cracking original songs written by the Sherman Brothers for Mary Poppins, which mesh nicely with Thomas Newman's newly composed score. They're inventively woven into the story and used for dramatic counterpoint, making this on one level a musical in itself, but with borrowed songs. Presumably, the producers of Saving Mr. Banks had no trouble clearing the rights.

Production: Ruby Films, Essential Media & Entertainment production in association with BBC Films, Hopscotch Features

Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak

Director: John Lee Hancock

Screenwriters: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith

Producers: Ian Collie, Alison Owen, Philip Steuer

Executive producers: Christine Langan, Troy Lum, Andrew Mason, Paul Trijbits

Director of photography: John Schwartzman

Production designer: Michael Corenblith

Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi

Editor: Mark Livolsi

Music: Thomas Newman

Rated PG-13, 126 minutes