As a person, Walt Disney was never really known for his subtlety, but was renowned for being a businessman with a great eye for crowd pleasing entertainment. The same can really be said of filmmaker John Lee Hancock, the man tasked with bringing to the big screen one of the Mouse House’s greatest real life success stories in Saving Mr. Banks. The director who previously helmed the megahit The Blind Side and The Rookie and co-wrote Snow White and the Huntsman hasn’t really been known to produce the most challenging fare for mainstream audiences, but he certainly gives the people what they want. It makes him a great fit to tell the arduous journey and battles between Walt and author P.L. Travers in making Mary Poppins into a cinematic spectacular. Since no outfit other than Disney would make the film, it was bound to be devoid of any internal controversy, but Hancock manages to still deliver a solid bit of holiday entertainment.
In 1961 after 20 years of failed negotiations, Travers (played here by Emma Thompson) travels from London to California to meet with Disney (Tom Hanks) and the creative team he has assigned to the long gestating project personally. She has very little intention of actually going through with granting Disney the rights to the story to go into production. She hates musicals. She hates animation. She thinks Mary Poppins as a character isn’t lighthearted or whimsical in nature. But most importantly, the story is just too personal and close to her own experiences to let it go, mirroring a lot of her own experiences growing up in Australia with an alcoholic banker father (Colin Farrell, seen in frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood). Walt and his staff try to charm her, but her mood never rises above being cautiously optimistic at the best of times.
Those looking for anything remotely close to Hollywood Insider styled dirt on Walt or a salacious look behind the scenes of one of the world’s most beloved family films won’t get anything from Mr. Banks. Those who simply want a good natured, well acted, and often funny and touching look at two artists clashing over very simple beliefs will get everything they want. Thompson does a fine job as the heavily medicated and understandably traumatized obstinate who wants to protect her intellectual property. Hanks does a pretty spot on take on Disney, portraying him as a savvy businessman who clearly loves the material or he would have given up hounding Travers for it years ago.
But their good natured and faithful performances aren’t anything that isn’t already on the page in the script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Much like the on screen characters of Travers and Disney, there’s almost no room for deviation. Part might be that Mary Poppins can still be somewhat of a touchy issue (Travers never really cared for the final version, anyway), and part is probably the studio trying to preserve its legacy. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t breathe much life into two larger than life personalities beyond what we already knew about them. They are great performances, sure, but the most interesting bit comes during the film’s credits when the audience actually gets to hear the audio recordings of the real life Travers and the creative team. A whole movie could almost be made from that on its own.
Hancock gets most of his strong supporting cast, who are allowed to do a bit more with less iconic characters around the periphery. Bradley Whitford is particularly good as beleaguered and exhausted screenwriter Don DaGradi. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak get the lion’s share of the film’s grandest creative epiphanies and one liners as the musical icons The Sherman Brothers. Paul Giamatti gets stuck playing a kindly limo driver, and he’s okay, but a throwaway role like this is kind of a sad commentary on the direction his career has been going in as of late. The biggest ace in the hole, however, is Farrell, who hasn’t been given a high profile role this great in quite some time. He’s very believable as a father who wants to do great things, but his vices and circumstance always seem to conspire against him.
Overall, Saving Mr. Banks aims to accomplish very basic goals and it succeeds. It’s not even really trying all that hard to be year-end Oscar bait, which is kind of refreshing. Then again, Mary Poppins was such an ambitious project that it’s somewhat disappointing that the film about its creation doesn’t take more chances. It’s probably best to go in prepared that you won’t see anything new or controversial, but on those terms it’s an alright little crowd pleaser.