It’s really easy to be cynical about a movie like “Saving Mr. Banks.” After all, it’s made by a studio glorifying its own history as it propagandizes a corporate behemoth wrestling away creative control of an intellectual property from its creator. Booooooo! Hissssssss!
But never underestimate the Disney Corporation, which copyrighted magic and wonder sometime back in the 1950s. You might walk into “Saving Mr. Banks” ready to scoff at the glossy, star-studded retelling of the prickly relationship between Walt Disney and “Mary Poppins” creator P.L. Travers, but you’ll be hard-pressed to walk out with dry eyes.
What makes this movie one of the best films of the year is how it pushes beyond the simple behind-the-scenes gossip and Hollywood myth-making to explore the complicated relationship between art and the artist. So what if that art involves a flying nanny?
Emma Thompson stars as Travers, the author who rebuked Walt Disney’s attempts to make her “Mary Poppins” books into a movie for 20 years.
Finally in 1961, thanks to some financial difficulties, she agrees to fly to Los Angeles to consult on the script and, pending her approval, sign over the movie rights.
The big joke of “Saving Mr. Banks” is the culture clash between the uptight, buttoned-down Travers and the relaxed, boyish, enigmatic Disney. Tom Hanks steps easily into Disney’s shoes at a time in the man’s life when he was a full-blown icon.
It’s an easy argument to make that Hanks is as universally beloved today as Disney was in the ‘60s — all he lacks is a “Bosom Buddies” theme park (don’t act like you wouldn’t go).
While Hanks and Thompson could play adversarial opposites in their sleep, where they shine are in the moments where they find their common denominator as a pair of hopeless dreamers.
The movie jumps back and forth between Travers’ fated California trip and her time as a young girl in colonial Australia where her relationship with her loving, free-spirited, alcoholic father (played by Colin Farrell) help explain the genesis of Mary Poppins along with Travers’ reluctance to let her go.
In addition to Disney, Travers is thawed ever so slightly by a whole host of well-meaning Disney employees. Screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting duo Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) dutifully endure all of Travers’ tirades, including her insistence that the movie not feature singing or animation.
Travers also strikes up a meaningful relationship with her driver, Ralph, played by Paul Giamatti, who dependably shows up once again to crush a supporting role out of the park.
Director John Lee Hancock is an expert producer of fluff like “The Blind Side” and while he does apply that same over-eager spit-polish to “Saving Mr. Banks” he is doing so in service of the excellent screenplay written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.
I freely admit that I am probably this movie’s easiest mark as both the father of a seven-year-old girl (I’ve got daddy-daughter heartstrings just dying to be tugged) and a lover of old Hollywood musicals (there’s a special place in my heart for my grandmother’s warn VHS copy of “Mary Poppins”).
Even still, it is impossible to dismiss “Saving Mr. Banks” as the simple story of a British biddy in King Disney’s court or as little more than an overblown, behind-the-scenes DVD extra because this is a movie that shows you its heart.
It reminds us that every movie, book, or song we ever loved once belonged to just one person, who was bold enough to share it with the rest of the world. This movie made me grateful for all of them.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.