December 14, 2013 by Matt Spencer
Sometimes the story behind how a book or film was made is a much more interesting tale than the thing that was created. All of the things we like about our most beloved stories had to have come from somewhere, so naturally we’re intrigued by the genesis behind elements of a story that we’re all familiar with. Hollywood knows this, of course, as it continues to pump out origins stories when a franchise has been milked dry of sequels. We also love to know how our favorite things came to be from a behind-the-scenes perspective in more of a true origins story, and this is what Disney’s latest goes for with Saving Mr. Banks, a look at the creation of the classic film Mary Poppins from director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie).
Saving Mr. Banks portrays author P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) having serious trepidation about signing the film rights over to Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks). Keep in mind that this is Hollywood circa the 1960s, not 2014 when book adaptations, sequels, and remakes run wild. Back in those days, people had the foresight to think about their decisions on what kind of movies would be made, and Travers is ever the watchdog of her story that she holds with deep reverence.
The disdain Travers shows Walt (you gotta call him Walt) at first glance seems like the dilemma of an author worried about the adaptation of her book becoming too commercialized and part of the Disney machine, which would give us a nice allegory about the big conglomerate machine assimilating yet another small and original story. However, as the film goes on we get a deeper understanding into why Travers is so adverse to the Disney adaptation through a series of flashbacks on her early life as a child growing up in rural Australia as well as a number of conversations Travers has while dealing with adapting the film.
What starts off seeming like being protective slowly turns into oppressiveness that paints Travers as the kid with a ball who won’t let anyone play with it. At a certain point in the film I became sympathetic to Walt’s point of view and started thinking what in the world is Travers doing. Throughout the process Walt is very accommodating with all of her demands and yet nothing is good enough for her. Then as things progress we start to get to the heart of why Travers is so protective of her work.
In many flashback sequences that are interspersed throughout the film, we come to realize Travers’ protectiveness as well as the genesis of the character of Mary Poppins. The main heart of the film centers around understanding Travers’ defensiveness for her creation and the ultimate realization and resolution to let the film be made (spoiler alert: yes, P.L. Travers did let Walt Disney turn Mary Poppins into a movie).
In the end, what gets the film made isn’t so much a proper depiction on screen or a good translation from book to film; it’s more about realizing that sometimes the things we hold onto the hardest, things from our past, need to be let go in order for us to move forward and live our lives.
Performance-wise, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are solid as always. While Hanks had a much better performance earlier this year in Captain Phillips, he’s perfectly fine here playing the energetic and friendly Walt Disney. Hanks’ version of Disney, while not being overly showy or impression-like, does give you enough to see him as the former mogul. The real star is Thompson as P.L. Travers. She plays the defensive author with great wit and inner torture to make you as frustrated as the filmmakers working with her on Mary Poppins while laughing at her remarks and jokes at the very same time.
Saving Mr Banks also features a couple of decent supporting turns from Colin Farrell as Travers’ father in flashback sequences and Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver while in Los Angeles. These two get the meatier of the supporting roles while BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford, and Jason Schwartzman are sidelined by playing the filmmakers tasked to work with (and get pounded by) Travers.
On the whole I felt the payoff of why Travers was sidelining production of the film wasn’t quite worth the journey. Granted the explanation is emotional and genuine, I just didn’t feel it matched with everything that had come before it. Ultimately it had me going “Was that all this was about?” at the end. However, you know the old adage: “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.” The sum of all the parts of Saving Mr. Banks are actually better than the whole–with the performances of the film leading the way. While the story was interesting and the performances were very good, it just wasn’t quite all there for me in the end. Maybe it needed just another spoonful of sugar. Saving Mr. Banks gets 3 out of 5 stars.