Directed by: John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side)
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman
I genuinely resent Saving Mr. Banks. If ever there was a movie I was primed to dislike, this was it. I am not a fan of Walt Disney and am completely resistant to his Magic Kingdom. I am not especially keen on the 1964 film, Mary Poppins. (In some regards, that’s an understatement.) I have not been impressed by John Lee Hancock’s previous movies. And the whole thing just looked like saccharine sweetened, treacly rubbish. What I resent, however, is how very much I liked Saving Mr. Banks. I spent the entire time knowing I was being lied to — or at least being fed an incredibly glossy and highly fictionalized story that never let pesky facts get in the way of its agenda. I never for one moment felt like I was watching anything other than Tom Hanks with a mustache playing a cozy, fantasy Uncle Walt, or that Emma Thompson was really anyone other than Emma Thompson playing a crowd-pleasing construct of author P.L. Travers. Despite it all — even while cringing at some of those Sherman brothers songs and Dick Van Dyke’s faux-Cockney end-of-the-pier foolishness in clips from Mary Poppins — I was largely enchanted by what took place on-screen. It takes a harder heart than mine to resist this.
In order to enjoy this movie, it’s necessary to realize only that the principal characters did indeed exist. Walt Disney did indeed woo P.L. Travers for years to be allowed to turn her Mary Poppins into a film. It is true that she resisted because she didn’t want a cartoon, she didn’t want songs and she didn’t want schmaltz. It is also true that she ultimately gave in. Beyond that, you just have to go with it — even with full knowledge of the fact that she did (in part) end up with some animation, a full serving of songs and a large dose of schmaltz.
There’s more than a little schmaltz — oh, hell, there’s lots of schmaltz — in this fantasy version of the events, but little bits of truth are wedged in around the edges. Not the least of those nuggets of truth is that the Disney film — however you feel about it — opened up her books to a new and wider readership. That the film also at least attempts to get at the core of Travers’ feelings about the Mary Poppins character is admirable, if not entirely successful. That it doesn’t present the whole story of P.L. Travers is no great sin. The film is about the making of Mary Poppins. It is not a biopic on Travers.
Saving Mr. Banks is a confection and should be viewed as such. In that regard, it works admirably, which is all you can reasonably ask. It is beautifully cast. Emma Thompson is wonderful. Without her performance, the film would be unthinkable. Tom Hanks is ... well, Tom Hanks, but he does pull off the public Disney. (The film only hints at the private figure with the secret smoking, the “pre-signed” autographs of Walt’s art-department-designed signature and the undercurrent of steely determination.) Colin Farrell, who plays Travers’ father in cross-cut flashbacks, is very good — as are the way the flashbacks play against the contemporary (1961) scenes. (One scene, in fact, verges on brilliant.) Bradley Whitford as beleaguered screenwriter Don DaGradi, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the similarly browbeaten songwriting Sherman brothers are exceptionally good, while Paul Giamatti manages what should have been an impossibly gooey role with aplomb. The scenes of Travers locking horns with the Disney creative staff are frankly delightful — and the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” segment is thoroughly charming, even if you’re resistant to the song itself.
I make no apologies for falling for this obviously spruced up, sanitized and, yes, Disneyfied version of events. It’s simply splendid entertainment. Letting yourself be put off by its loose depiction of the facts is cutting yourself off from a very pleasant moviegoing experience. (And let’s be honest, not many of this year’s holiday offerings are necessarily pleasant — regardless of how good they are.) If it’s only true in the broadest strokes, so what? Anyone who goes to the movies expecting a history lesson is already in trouble. As a story of the creative experience — no matter how candy-coated — it’s pretty darn good. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.
Playing at Epic of Hendersonville, Flat Rock Cinema, Regal Biltmore Grande.