by Steve Habrat
Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to crafting crowd-pleasing dramas. He’s the man responsible for such films as Dennis Quaid’s 2002 sports drama The Rookie and Sandra Bullock’s unstoppable 2009 hit The Blind Side. When it came to telling the enchanting story of how Walt Disney managed to get the rights to P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, Hancock was certainly the man for the job. Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a well-oiled piece of period filmmaking with several performances that certainly scream for Oscar. It’s a mushy tale about how much the character of Mary Poppins meant to Travers, served up in a candy shell that audiences are guaranteed to savor. Both Hancock and Disney Studios are playing to our hearts with the emotional script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, but the magic of Saving Mr. Banks really comes alive through the performances from its spread of A-list celebrities. This is Emma Thompson’s show, but Tom Hanks, who is still hot off the success of Captain Phillips, warmly beams his way through his performance as the ultimate dreamer, Walt Disney. And then there is the sweet performance from Paul Giamatti and a particularly touching turn from Colin Farrell, who becomes the film’s beating heart and soaring soul.
Saving Mr. Banks picks up in 1961, with Mary Poppins author Pamela P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) tight on money and low on options. Through her agent, Diarmuid Russell (played by Ronan Vibert), Pamela receives an offer from Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) for the rights to her beloved story so that he can make it into a movie. At first, Pamela refuses to sign over the rights to Disney, who she believes will ruin her very personal story, but her reluctance to right another novel to bring in more money puts her in a difficult spot. With no other alternatives, Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt to discuss the project. Upon her arrival, Walt goes above and beyond to charm the scowling Pamela, but each one of his attempts bounces right off her thick skin. Pamela soon begins meeting with scriptwriter Don DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricist brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to pour over every single detail of the script, storyboards, and musical numbers—all of which she finds fault with. As the exasperated Disney crewmembers try to please Pamela, she strikes up a friendship with her kindly driver, Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti), and begins flashing back to her dysfunctional childhood in Queensland, Australia, with her alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff (played by Colin Farrell), who instilled a vivid imagination inside the young Pamela.
Saving Mr. Banks juggles two storylines, one which flashes back to Australia, 1906, which gives us a glimpse inside Pamela’s upbringing at the hands of her drunken but loving father and her wounded, soft-spoken mother (played by Ruth Wilson). The scenes set in Australia are given a fairy tale glow, romanticized and shimmering in true Disney fashion. The dramatic outback flashbacks are met by the scenes set in 1961, which posses a more humorous side as Pamela grapples with her idiosyncrasies with her beloved character. Thompson plays Pamela as a porcupine of a woman, a prissy control freak who never passes up a chance to put old Walt Disney in his place. When she isn’t complaining that Los Angeles smells like sweat and chlorine, she ripping into ol’ Walt for anything and everything. Initially, she appears to be immune to Walt’s charms and she scowls every time she lays eyes on a familiar mouse that we have all come to adore. When she meets with DaGradi and the Sherman brothers, she stomps her feet and demands that all of their meeting are recorded. She especially detests the songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and she groans over the mustache added to the character of Mr. Banks, an addition that Walt has personally requested. For as cold and heartless as she seems to be, Thompson molds the character into a sympathetic soul who wrestles with painful memories that she feels doesn’t deserve the pixie-dust whimsy that she is convinced Walt will give her story.
As far as the rest of the performances go, Hanks beams his way through his performance as Walt Disney, a happy-go-lucky businessman who is absolutely perplexed by the whirlwind that is Pamela. Watching his reactions to feisty writer is a treat, especially when she recoils in horror at his suggestion of taking a trip to Disneyland. As his battle to make the movie culminates, he tells a personal story that reveals his understanding over how much the character of Mary Poppins means to Pamela. Then there is Giamatti, who gives one of the most sensitive performances of his career as Ralph, Pamela’s gee-whiz limo driver who makes every effort imaginable to get to know this rigid sourpuss. Watching Ralph develop his friendship with Pamela is hilarious and near the end, it takes an emotional turn that will make your heart swell. Whitford nabs several chuckles as DaGradi, the cautious scriptwriter tasked with battling with Travers on a day-to-day basis. Schwarztman and Novak are a terrific tag team as the Shermans, the composers who just can’t seem to come up with a tune that gets Travers tapping her toes. Then there is Farrell, who just leaps across the screen on the wings of imagination. Behind closed doors, he is a withering heap of a man consumed by alcoholic demons and an illness that threatens to take his life. However, when he is facing the young Pamela in the sun, he is a dancing court jester, her encouragement to never stop dreaming or chasing imagination. Trust me when I say that this role is one of Farrell’s finest hours.
Considering that Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, the film’s sets and cinematography look like a million bucks. While there was no filming in Australia, Hancock does a marvelous job transforming various locations around California into the dusty Australian Outback. It should also be noted that there isn’t a single shot in the entire picture that isn’t crisp, clean, and gorgeous, always eager to show off the fantastic period clothing and set design. Hancock and his screenwriters also do a marvelous job with revealing little secrets about Pamela’s past to the viewer, whether it is her dislike for pears or her fury over Mr. Banks having a mustache on screen. Every little reveal is balanced throughout the picture, one being just slightly more emotional than the last one. Overall, while there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Disney studios has sweetened this story up in places, Saving Mr. Banks is still a wholesome little movie that touches on the importance of imagination and pleas with each and every one of us to never loose our child-like sense of wonder. Thompson and Farrell are Oscar worthy in their respective roles, Giamatti’s Ralph is unforgettable, and Hanks is clearly having a grand old time slipping into the skin of Walt Disney, a role he was born to play.