Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti
Clearly not afraid to start the party too soon, Disney’s biopic of how its sweet and smiling founder managed to convince the dismissive and uncompromising British writer P.L. Travers to sign over the rights to her beloved novel Mary Poppins, arrives more than 6 months before the 50th anniversary of the studio’s much-loved musical. On the surface it’s an unashamed celebration, both of the magic of Disney and indeed of Walt himself; sprinkled with more than a spoonful of sentimentality and melodrama.
With her steely eyes and stiff upper lip, Travers travels to LA in 1961 to meet with Walt Disney who, for 20 years, has been trying to acquire the rights to the writer’s universally loved novel in order to keep a promise made to his daughters. Splitting the central narrative with flashbacks of Travers’ own childhood in Queensland, the film dramatizes Disney’s struggle to convince Travers of his vision and the writer’s personal reasons for not wanting her work to be swallowed by the untiring movie mogul.
So determinedly nostalgic is the House of Mouse’s vision for Saving Mr. Banks, down to the use of the studio’s original logo at the start, that any negativity surrounding both the facts and Walt himself are swept under the rug. Particularly frustrating is the ending, which ignores the author’s well-documented ferocity both towards the final film and Disney himself in favor of a deceitfully syrupy ending that leaves the pair as firm friends. Disney fanatics will no doubt lap up the heavy handed and weepy-eyed final scene, but others may find it too forced.
Tom Hanks certainly embodies the charm of Walt Disney. His encapsulation of dreams and happiness lightens a tale that is driven by the childhood demons swirling around in Travers’ head. As the prickly author, Emma Thompson gives an exceptionally well-balanced performance that considerably enhances the quality of the film. From the first shot, her steely eyes match her belligerent persona as we see Travers taken from her quaint London townhouse to the chlorine smelling land of Hollywood. Thompson nails both the humorous put-downs she blithely dishes out to whoever stands in the way of her vision early on and the poignant beats that sustain much of the second half.
Less successful are the overused flashbacks that melodramatically document Travers’ relationship with her drunken father. While Thompson masterfully shows the effect her father’s disintegration had on her, the scenes themselves are too theatrical to be affecting; a scene in which her father gives a speech about banking in perfect rhythm to the Sherman brothers performing ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’ feels uncomfortably forced. Then there’s Colin Farrell whose accent is, quite ironically, as uneven as Dick Van Dyke’s was.
Your enjoyment of Saving Mr. Banks is likely to ultimately be determined by your thoughts towards Mary Poppins herself. Fans will no doubt rejoice at the opportunity to hear some of their favorite cinematic melodies replayed, while cynics will be dismayed at the film’s distortion of the truth, particularly during the finale. Like all Disney films, it ends with a smile on its face and a lump in its throat, but it may need more than a spoonful of sugar to help it all go down.