First Private Ryan, now Mr Banks. It seems Tom Hanks always has someone to save.
In Saving Mr Banks, Hanks plays none other than Mr Walt Disney, who has been courting the author of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers (Emma Thompson) for 20 years in the hopes of delivering a big screen version to audiences. Unfortunately, Travers a bit of a stubborn biatch with very concrete ideas of who her characters are and the limits of what she would allow them to do, and so begins a difficult process of trying to please her while putting together the classic 1964 Mary Poppins film we all know about today.
I had lofty expectations for Saving Mr Banks, but in the end I just thought it was just an OK movie, somewhat sentimental, mildly amusing and rather predictable. It’s charming, warm and driven by wonderful performances and songs and all, though it’s a stretch to suggest it’s anything approaching one of the best films of 2013.
Part of the reason I’m not as high about the film as most others could be because I’ve never been a huge fan of Mary Poppins. In fact, I didn’t even see the film for the first time until I was in my 20s (or at least that’s how I remember it) and I had no idea the film was based on a book. I later saw a stage musical version of it and therefore know all the catchy songs quite well, but as a whole it doesn’t have a special place in my heart like it does for many others of my generation.
This is really a character journey film about the internal struggles of Travers, with Disney playing a more minor role as the facilitator. Travers is snooty, defensive and opinionated, but as we find out throughout the course of the film through flashbacks to her childhood, there is a reason for the way she’s turned out like this, and a reason why she’s so fixated on who her characters are. And the majority of it has to do with her loving father, played by Colin Farrell, is fighting a losing battle against demons of his own.
The 125-minute running time is mostly dedicated to Disney and his team trying to break through the ice and soften Travers up so that they can make the type of film they want to make. For me, the best parts are watching the Mary Poppins music composers, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak), developing the famous songs such as Chim Chim Cher-ee and Let’s Go Fly a Kite — I found the process to be intriguing and fun, and I wonder how realistic it actually was.
The main problem I had with it — apart from the claims of historical revision and shameless Disney PR — is that Travers (notwithstanding Thompson’s brilliant performance) never comes across as a very likable person. Yes, you get to understand her and ride along with her as she undergoes her character journey, but the sense of empathy was lacking because I found her to be quite insufferable. The other problem is that we all know Mary Poppins gets made in the end, so no matter how much Travers threatens to pull out, we know how it’s going to turn out in the end, and knowing that this is a Disney film, we also know everything will ultimately be A-OK.
That said, from the perspective of an origins story, Saving Mr Banks is a fascinating look into how films were made back in the day. It’s also smartly written and educational (eg, you find out Travers is actually an Aussie!) without being saccharine. If you were/are a fan of Marry Poppins then it’s likely the film will resonate and provide a warm and fuzzy trip down memory lane. For me, on the other hand, it’s just a reasonably enjoyable couple of hours.
3.25 stars out of 5