Saving Mr. Banks is the story of how Walt Disney came to make what is now regarded as his masterpiece: the much seen and much loved Mary Poppins, which was based on the series of very popular childrens books by P.L. Travers. Or rather, this _a_ version of the story. A somewhat sanitized and highly romanticized version. The real story unfolded rather differently. But that said, Saving Mr. Banks is at its heart, after all, a story and not a documentary, and in that context it's a highly enjoyable story.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel (Terra Nova) and Sue Smith, (The Road from Coorain), Saving Mr. Banks is set in California in 1961 but flashes back to Australia in 1907 and Travers' early childhood.
Walt Disney (winningly played by Tom Hanks) has a problem. Many years ago, when his two daughters were quite young, he made a promise to them that he would make a movie of their favorite story-book character, Mary Poppins, the heroine of the series of popular books by English author P.L. Travers. His problem is that Travers (a bravura performance by Emma Thompson) doesn't want to sell him the screen rights to make the movie and has been refusing to do so for two decades. But Ms. Travers also has a problem - money. Her books aren't selling as well as they once did, and the only way out of her financial situation seems to be agreeing to meet with Disney about finally selling him the screen rights. This quickly becomes a clash between Disney's charming but determined irresistible force and Travers' seemingly immovable objections to everything about the project, which despite her needs she seems determined to prevent. It seems that the negotiations are doomed to fail, but then, as we have come expect from anything Disney "like a bolt out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through". How that happens, and why, is what the movie is really about.
The performances are excellent. Tom Hanks' Disney is engaging, showing the man's charm and his frustrations but also his determination to realize his dream. It's interesting that in some ways Hanks may end up competing with himself at Oscar time for his performance in this year's Captain Phillips, where he also played a man caught up in a clash of wills, albeit a more desperate one. Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility, Howard's End) is a certainty for an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a very complex Travers, showing how Mary Poppins was not merely a literary creation - it was her way of trying to reconcile her inner conflicts over her difficult childhood, in particular her relationship with her father, Travers Goff, the real-life basis for the Mr. Banks of the title. Colin Farrell gives a stand-out performance as Goff, one of the best of his career, showing the man's complex nature, from his all-too-obvious flaws to the part of him that still managed to endear himself in his daughter's memory. Paul Giamatti shows his nice side as Ralph, Traver's driver, who gives her a sympathetic ear to turn to in the midst of people she deems adversaries. One of the more moving scenes in the movie occurs when Giamatti's Ralph explains to Travers just why he's so seemingly focused on the weather and why every sunny day is a good day. It's rather startling actually to see Giamatti play nice after having just seen his decidedly nasty turn as a slave dealer in 12 Years a Slave. The Disney creative team was particularly well done. Bradley Whitford (The Good Guys, The West Wing) plays Don DaGradi, Disney's top screenwriter, and B.J. Novak (The Office, Inglourious Basterds) and Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Limited) are remarkably paired as the song-writing brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, all of whom are just as anxious as Disney to win Travers over. Their scenes give remarkable insight into the creative process involved not only in adapting a novel for film but in adapting to try and please and/or placate a difficult author at the same time.
Also worth noting is the musical score by Thomas Newman (Wall-E, Skyfall) which nicely adds to the emotions being displayed on the screen and evokes the varying time and place of the scenes, using wistful lilting melodies and occasional subdued overtones for Travers' childhood in rural Australia and more modern sounds with a slightly faster pace for 1960's California. It's something of a challenge to pull off without the shifts feeling jarring but Newman manages it quite well. And equally impressive is John Schwartzman's cinematography as it brings both settings to vivid life, seamlessly switching from one to the other as the story unfolds.
But as I indicated at the beginning, one should remember that this is a more than a little sanitized and sentimentalized version of not only the events that took place but of the people themselves, particularly Disney and Travers. For example, at no point in the film is Hanks' Disney ever seen smoking even though for most of his adult life Disney was a notorious chain-smoker, ultimately dying of lung cancer just two years after the Mary Poppins film was released). Neither is there any real hint of how ruthless and even cold Disney could be. The Disney you see here is the warm "Uncle Walt" version that he carefully crafted for himself, not the man who notoriously sacked child actor Bobby Driscoll after the release of Peter Pan or Tommy Kirk, star of many Disney films and the Mickey Mouse Club TV show, after he found out that Kirk was gay. Thompson's P.L. Travers also gets a scrubbing, making her an overly fussy and lonely but oh-so-proper Englishwoman, completely at odds with her rather Bohemian younger years and the multiple romantic relationships she had in her life with members of both sexes. And who in reality never married even though in the film she repeatedly insists on being addressed as "Mrs. Travers". Nor is there anything but the slightest hint of her adopted son, the story of which would have revealed her own rather cold and ruthless side. But again, this isn't a documentary - it's a story, and as such should be enjoyed for what it is. No more, no less.
One final note - make sure to stay through the end credits, where they not only show photos of all of the real people depicted in the film but also play one of the actual tape-recorded planning sessions between Travers and the Disney team. Those scenes - along with the ones of Travers' early childhood in Australia - were the most factually accurate parts of the movie.
Highly recommended as an entertaining version of an important episode of Disney movie history. The real-life version is out there for anyone who wants to look it up and it's quite interesting in its own right, but this version is the one you'll want to take your kids to see.