'Saving Mr. Banks' Comes with a Perfect Spoonful of Charm

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are a joy to watch in Saving Mr. Banks, a sweet but worthwhile Disney film about the making of Mary Poppins.

Saving Mr. Banks

Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks
Distributor: Disney
Release date: 2014-03-18

I don’t know if there’s an actor with more surefire likability than Tom Hanks. So, when he plays the celebrated mastermind Walt Disney in Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, the exact sort of cinematic magic that you’d hope for happens on screen.

Saving Mr. Banks, now available on Blu-ray and DVD, tells the story of how Disney eventually persuaded author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him make a movie version of her Mary Poppins stories. It’s essentially a Disney movie about the making of a Disney movie, but to its credit the film isn’t all fun and fancy-free.

Thompson is disarmingly ill tempered as Travers, who fears that Disney will destroy her beloved character, a magical nanny who makes it her mission to save the misguided Banks family.

From the start of the 125-minute film, Travers is not pleased by anything. Upon her arrival to California, she tells her appointed chauffeur (the endearing Paul Giamatti), "It smells like chlorine and sweat." She dislikes the Mary Poppins script and manages to dislike the bouncy, whimsical songs of the Sherman brothers at Walt Disney’s studios even more. She can’t imagine her precious Mary Poppins getting the musical treatment.

Among many other demands about Poppins, Travers declares, “I won’t have her be one of your silly cartoons!” Thompson is brilliant and, correspondingly, quite amusing as this demanding, disgruntled figure with a sharp tongue and a persistent scowl.

As the film discusses, Disney had promised his daughters he would make a movie out of Travers’ classic book. He persevered for 20 years and ultimately prevailed, finally making the film he wanted to make.

No doubt the real Travers would have despised this film, too. No matter how little you know about the making of Mary Poppins, it seems that we’re not getting the whole story in this shining presentation. It doesn’t fully glamorize Walt Disney—it at least shows him (gasp!) smoking—but his argumentative relationship with the author is presented as a story of determination and laughs instead of a creative process filled with heated quarrels.

The script, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, also makes heavy use of flashbacks to show the impact of a difficult time in Travers’ upbringing. As a girl, Travers was both enchanted and emotionally damaged by her unpredictable, alcoholic father, a man who certainly influenced the character of Mary Poppins’ Mr. Banks. These heavy, emotional segments of the film are starkly different in tone and are almost entirely devoid of whimsy. As a result, it makes for an interesting sideshow during the motion picture, and Colin Farrell does his best work in many years as Travers’ misguided father.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) does an adequate job commanding the film, jumping between the lively, amusing scenes of Disney (and the Sherman brothers) trying desperately to impress Travers and the scenes that tell of the difficult childhood moments with her father. Yet, while the golden-hued flashbacks set up an interesting storyline reveal for audiences, they also cause the film to drag. The juxtaposition between the suffering and the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” songs may be a bit much.

Nonetheless, as a whole, this is an enjoyable, touching film filled with stellar performances.

Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak play the legendary musical Sherman brothers in the film and do a wonderful job capturing the duo’s energy and quirkiness, but since they’re always on screen with either Hanks or Thompson, they’ll never get enough credit for their performances. Similarly, Giamatti isn’t given much to say or do, but makes every word count in his winning scenes with Thompson.

As you'd expect, Hanks is delightful as he effortlessly captures Disney's kindhearted manner and distinctive folksy voice. He calls Travers “Pam”, even though she insists on being addressed as Mrs. Travers. As a charismatic celebrity himself, Hanks delivers these sorts of lines in a way that captures Disney’s inherent likeability without neglecting his authority as a powerful media mogul.

Of course, the heart of Saving Mr. Banks is the relationship between Travers and Disney. The dialogue isn’t always believable, but the characters, as well as the actors, make perfect foils for one another. As a result, it’s a satisfying, albeit sort of self-serving, Disney film that soars like a kite in the wind because of its intrinsic charm.

If you grew up watching Mary Poppins, which starred Julie Andrews as the practically perfect nanny, you’ll appreciate this amiable backstory of its inventive journey. However, if you aren’t among the multitudes that adore the 1964 film, this might not immediately hit your sweet spot. You might need a spoonful of sugar, too.

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