You can see all kinds of movies this holiday season, from a gargantuan
fantasy tale to a gripping war drama, but I daresay there’s only one that
offers charm, delight, and a finale that will bring tears to your eyes. That’s Saving Mr. Banks. That such a lovely,
heartfelt film could be made at a time when irony and darkness dominate
mainstream moviemaking is a minor miracle. Yet with delicacy and taste, Saving Mr. Banks spins a fascinating
story about the people whose rocky collaboration resulted in a beloved movie, Mary Poppins. Having grown up watching
Walt Disney on television, I doubted that anyone could imitate him to my
satisfaction, but I was wrong: Tom Hanks embodies the look and spirit of the
public Walt and provides some telling hints about the private man as well. (Note
the actor’s stance during meetings and his formidable smoker’s cough.) P.L. Travers
was a more private individual, yet surviving tape recordings of her story
sessions at the Disney studio confirm that Emma Thompson has captured this
eccentric author to a T. (Don’t leave without listening to the evidence, played
during the closing credits.)
The movie tells two parallel stories: Walt Disney’s wooing of the contrary Pamela Travers during a tense two-week visit to his studio in California, and, through flashback, the events of Travers’ childhood in Australia—especially her relationship with a loving but irresponsible father (played by Colin Farrell)—that formed her personality and inspired her to create her Poppins stories.
In both milieus, director John Lee Hancock has used restraint, a rare commodity in modern Hollywood movies. The childhood scenes are played with the seriousness that befits young Pamela’s lifelong attachment to them. The sequences that take place in a rehearsal room at the Disney studio (involving writer-producer Don DaGradi and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman) may strike some viewers as rose-colored, yet will seem completely credible to anyone who’s read up on the workings of the Disney company at that time. Richard Sherman served as a valuable consultant to both the actors and filmmakers, including screenwriter Kelly Marcel, who shares screen credit with Sue Smith, the author of an unproduced Travers biopic.
Does that mean that Saving Mr. Banks tells the whole, unvarnished truth? I doubt it. I don’t know if P.L. Travers actually had a driver as earnest and winning as the one played by Paul Giamatti during her stay in Los Angeles. I can’t vouch for every detail of Poppins’ inspiration from Travers’ childhood. But I’ve learned not to get my history (recent or distant) from movies. What Saving Mr. Banks does offer is a heartwarming piece of entertainment, highlighted by a handful of superior performances. Walt Disney himself couldn’t have asked for more.