I know that I was supposed to hate this, but I honestly spent two hours last night crying, smiling and falling madly in love with ‘Saving Mr. Banks’. Sure, it is a flawed film, in more ways than one, and the overt sentimentality of it all is sure to rub people the wrong way, and is one of those things that I have been known to criticize in other films, and yet there was something so pure and utterly enjoyable about every frame here that I couldn’t help but feel a deep swell of affection for this film, from start to finish.
It doesn’t hurt that ‘Mary Poppins’ is one of my favorite films of all time. But then again, who doesn’t absolutely melt for that cinematic masterpiece. The perfect blend of wit and charm coupled with a real emotional burst and some splendid life lessons, ‘Mary Poppins’ is a magical and perfect representation of what Disney stood for and continues to stand for.
A film about the collaborative creation of that big screen classic is daunting, for sure.
I’m going to get the bad out of the way, because to me it is a little thing when taken into the context of the film. Walt Disney was, as far as most accounts and records would indicate, a very selfish and reprehensible man. He was a business man and a BS artist and had some unsavory political (or social) views and he was not a well thought of man, even by his employees. He was a hard man to be around. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ portrays him in the same golden light that his company has tried to cast him under since the very beginning. Now, normally this would be a big detractor for me, but the truth of the matter is that this film is not about Walt Disney. He is a supporting character and has marginal screen time, and the fact that he was desperate for a piece of Poppin’s pie has me hedging bets that he probably put his best foot forward during the time in question here.
Still, it did feel like a real sugarcoating of the man, especially in his alone scenes, and made me wonder if Disney was the right studio to put out this movie.
That being said, Disney really does make this movie so magical, so maybe they were the right studio. Like I said, this movie isn’t even about Disney, and so having him be a façade isn’t a huge deal. This movie is about P.L. Travers and her struggle to share her world, that repressed past that lies behind her masterpiece, and as such ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ soars. While some have balked that this film portrayed Travers’ as an unsavory woman, I don’t agree. She was prickly, yes, but she was also softened, and Emma Thompson is so remarkable (more on her in a minute) that she makes this woman so endearing and likable, despite her short fuse and sharp words.
The film cuts between Travers childhood and her battle with Disney over the film rights to her book. As the film progresses, and Travers goes in and out of her head, we see how the world of ‘Mary Poppins’ was a form of escape that mirrored her own troubled childhood.
But this is what I really loved about this movie. Instead of going to easy, melodramatic route and giving us the expected overbearing depression of life with an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother (because Travers had both those things), ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ paints these issues with a deft hand and actually softens its blows, creating a film that feels light on its feet, never bogged down by the weight of its contents, and yet never feels slight either. The relationship between Travers and her father plays a central role here, creating a story about fathers and their mistakes and the daughters who love them and are left to pick up the pieces, and it does so in a way that feels authentic and soulful. A lot of this is due to Colin Farrell’s heartwarming performance as Travers’ father. The portrayal of her father as an imperfect man, and not a soulless monster, was a really nice twist from the norm and gave a complexity to the film I didn’t expect.
I honestly felt this was going to be a clichéd fluff film, and I almost passed on seeing this altogether because of that assumption.
For me, this film lives and breathes in the marvelous performance given by Emma Thompson. She is such a delightful breath of fresh air here. She nails the biting sarcasm and prickly demeanor of Travers, and grabs hold of you from her very first scene, but it is in the warmer notes that her performance really shines. Both of the ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ scenes left me in a puddle of tears, especially the first one (her foot movement, her delightful exuberance) and it was in that complete transformation that she won me over.
The entire ensemble is great, with Giamatti, Novak, Whitford, Schwartzman and a young Annie Rose Buckley making delightful turns. Hanks is a superb Disney, despite the white washing (and the horrible eye makeup that makes him look like he’s either Asian or had a botched facelift in certain angles) and makes the most out of his big confession scene (cue waterworks).
This is not a popular opinion, I know. I had a similar reaction to the maligned ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, but I can’t help it. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ won me over with its heart and soul, which it most certainly has. What a tremendous year Disney just had!
I give this an easy A. I know that that may feel overdone, but I really truly connected to this movie in such a large way. It was just everything that Hollywood movies should be. I'm also really sad that this movie looked poised to rack up the Oscar nominations and wound up stumbling at the finish line and received only one nomination. It's a real shame, since this is one of those Hollywood movies about Hollywood that actually delivers all the goods.