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Film Review: “Saving Mr. Banks” Is Practically Perfect in Every Way

Charming, surprising, and emotional, Saving Mr. Banks pays tribute to the Disney classic Mary Poppins, and describes the untold and amazing story of its journey onto the big screen.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, the film takes us back to the 1960s and chronicles the journey of how “Mary Poppins” became a part of the Disney legacy as one of the most cherished films of all time. P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is introduced as the author of Mary Poppins, though she unexpectedly has a very rude, sarcastic, and blunt persona. She is extremely attached to her Mary Poppins and is unwilling to see change.

When funds run short for her in London, she reluctantly takes Walt Disney’s offer of turning her beloved book into a movie. There, she is acquainted with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) himself. Walt is everything one would imagine the creator of a franchise filled with imagination and happiness would be: gregarious, enterprising, and extremely lovable. Despite the fun-loving nature of the Disney company as a whole though, she is thoroughly disgusted by her surroundings and circumstances; she associates both Hollywood and the Disney Company as being a platform of opulence and highly unneeded extravagance (the “Hollywood Machine”).

There is a serious juxtaposition between Walt and Travers. While Travers wants to stay true to Mary’s story (or rather, her story – we’ll get to that later), Walt wants to add fun, delight, and magic, or what some might call the Disney touch. With imagination being injected into the storyboards, songs, character design, and other aspects, Travers becomes more and more unsatisfied with how her tale is transforming, and throws harsh criticism at everyone opposed to her views.

As she draws herself further and further away from the project, Walt is bewildered by her unwillingness to comply with his visions, and begins to look deeper into Travers’ life and background. Once he discovers that there are still broken ties and frailties that exist from her childhood, he is able to convince her that if allowed the reins for the movie, he will create a masterpiece that will share Mary with the world in the best possible way, and will additionally set her free from the burdens in her past – ultimately, a happy story.

Walking into the film without knowing Travers’s background is quite a surprise. Her imposing and blunt personality is so different compared to how people usually see the delightful Mary Poppins, and it would be hard to equate the two. Behind the tough exterior however, it’s revealed that Travers is quite vulnerable on the inside. The film reminds us of her humble beginnings with constant flashbacks to Australia, circa early 1900s. Despite the rough circumstances, her happiness as a child is found in her father, Travers Goff, portrayed wonderfully by Colin Farrell. Much like Walt Disney, Goff is an imaginative, fun-loving and extremely caring father. He enjoys taking their relatively dull surroundings and transforming it into a joyful, creative world.

Once hardships affect their family, specifically the father, Travers and her family are visited by a young nanny, much like Mary Poppins. This nanny is able to help their family recover, but not without more pain. Flashing back to the ’60s, it turns out Travers still has the same fears that she had when she was younger. That is why she is so dependent on Mary as being the source of happiness and a constant in her life, and is extremely devoted in keeping that image of her alive. When you realize this, the story of Mary Poppins becomes a lot more beautiful, and shows why it is so important to save the father – Mr. Banks.

It goes without being said that Emma Thompson is fantastic in her portrayal of P.L. Travers. You cannot tell that this rigid and brusque character is the same effervescent actress that is reigning over this year’s award season. Thompson is commanding in every scene, and is admiringly able to portray a character with so many varying emotions: from joyful and taut to protective. Though the audience cringes at many of her biting remarks, there is a tenderness brought to her character, allowing for us to empathize with her through her hardships.

Now, being an extreme Disney fanatic in addition to Tom Hanks being one of my favorite actors, seeing these two worlds collide was one of the best things I’ve experienced. Based on what the public knows of Walt Disney, from his shows “The Wonderful World of Disney” to “Walt Disney Presents,” Hanks brilliantly captured Disney’s mannerisms, insights, and love for the arts. And most definitely charm. He even captures some of Disney’s controversial qualities, including his three-pack a day mentality. Bringing Disney alive in probably the first-ever movie portrayal, we really get a sense of Disney’s undying determination for Mary’s story and his vivid imagination. His motto? Never let anything go to waste. There is potential in everything and everyone.

Also included in the cast are Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak as Richard and the late Robert Sherman, beloved songwriters of many Disney Classics. Bradley Whitford portrays the screenwriter Don DaGradi, who in real life was also responsible for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Paul Giamatti plays the only fictional character in the real-life story, as Travers’ chauffeur Ralph. Interestingly enough, he is seen to be the only one to break down Travers’ icy exterior and really connect with her. By sharing a heartwarming story, he proves that there’s so much more to any person than just their exterior.

The detail in this movie is astounding. There are primarily three locations throughout the film: Hollywood and London in the 1960s, and Australia, early 1900s. Music orchestrated by Thomas Newman brings us a flurry of emotions on the whirlwind journey and takes into account the different themes of each location. The cinematography was spectacular, and definitely impressive when considering the giant feat of filming at Disneyland during its open hours. Additionally, Hancock was able to film on the mostly-unchanged Disney lot and at the actual rehearsal studios where Mary Poppins was first conceived, making the film so much more authentic and wonderful. Seeing Disneyland in the 1960s, especially with all the subtle differences in Main Street and King Arthur’s Carousel was definitely a treat (might have been my favorite part).

It is important to acknowledge that the film is not entirely accurate in the Disney-Travers conflicts. For one, Disney was apparently not incredibly involved in trying to keep Travers on board with the film till the very end. And though Travers is portrayed as being without a family in the film, she actually had adopted a son by the time that Mary Poppins was being made. 

Now I’ve gotta add a bit of my movie-going experience while watching the film. In the theater, I was sitting with a toddler next to me and a senior couple right behind me. Throughout the movie, I heard the couple whispering to each other, remarking on Walt’s character and the comparisons with how they saw him growing up to how accurate Disneyland looked like in the 1960s. And though she probably didn’t thoroughly understand the deeper emotional overtones of the film, she was definitely able to appreciate the music.

We all left the theater to her trilling out “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” In any other circumstance, I might have found this annoying. Yet this whole experience really reminded me of how timeless and impacting Disney’s legacy is, on people ranging from 80 years old to everything in between. On a personal note, by the end of the film, my heart was filled to the brim with nostalgia – nostalgia for a time I wasn’t even alive in. That’s not the point, though, since Walt endeavored to make his stories ageless and timeless. And the development of Travers character right to the end made me cherish the movie even more.

There’s so much that can be taken from this journey. There really is no end to the book of a person’s life, no matter how definite the last chapter may seem. Like I mentioned before, there is potential in everyone. And to get things done, there needs to be determination, determination, a lot of perspiration, and more determination. It’s a feel-good movie about the making of a movie, but also so much more. As shown through my theater experience, this film is appropriate for and can be enjoyed by all ages. You might even catch yourself singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” on your way out. I’ve thrown out a lot of adjectives to describe this movie, but there’s just one more: it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

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  • Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell
  • Directed by: John Lee Hancock
  • Running Time: 126 minutes
  • Genre: Drama