It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking Disney. Sure, many of us go through a phase where we think we’re too old and sophisticated for Mickey Mouse. This typically leads to our pretentious cynic phase in which our college professors open our eyes to all the stereotypes and “hurtful ethics” Disney has endorsed over the years. Films like “Escape from Tomorrow” haven’t exactly helped the company’s image either. At the end of the day, though, nobody can outrun the magic, good will, and sheer lovability attached to Disney. There isn’t a cold-hearted soul that can’t be completely won over by the mouse house … except maybe P.L. Travers, the author of “Mary Poppins.”
Many consider the 1964 musical adaptation of “Mary Poppins” to be Walt Disney’s crowning live-action achievement. Yet, Travers wasn’t the happiest camper during the film’s production and wasn’t entirely thrilled with the end product. This isn’t the only time an author has disapproved of a film adaptation of their work. Fun fact, Roald Dahl was not a fan of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”
The relationship between Travers and Disney is the focus of “Saving Mr. Banks,” a most charming new film from John Lee Hancock. Emma Thompson is positively marvelous as Travers, who is finally convinced to meet with Disney about the film rights to her beloved books after 20 years of being hounded. Upon arriving, she is introduced to Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi as well as B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman brothers. The unwavering Travers shoots down just about every idea they have in mind, from the music, to the animation, to the casting of Dick Van Dyke, to the use of the color red. No one is able to get through to Travers, not even Uncle Walt himself.
There isn’t a living actor more likable than Tom Hanks. There was never an icon more likable than Walt Disney, assuming you don’t buy into the whole anti-Semitic thing. It’s only natural that Hanks would play Disney eventually. He hits just the right note as an exuberant creative genius with great passion for his job and life. At the same time, Hanks also plays Disney as a persuasive businessman who’s used to getting what he wants. As frustrated as Disney becomes with Travers’ constant rejections, he does sympathize with her concerns about entrusting Mary Poppins to another artist. In his early days as an animator, Disney was approached by many who wanted to buy Mickey Mouse and he simply couldn’t sell.
If there’s one part of “Saving Mr. Banks” that lags at times it’s a series of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, where she survived by a suicidal mother and alcoholic father. Colin Farrell mostly carries these scenes in a wonderful supporting performance as Travers’ dad, who loves his daughters to death, but enjoys playing more than working. While effective at times, this is also the most predictable portion of the film. At one point it looks things might take an unexpected turn when Travers is paid a visit from her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who shares some resemblance to Mary Poppins. However, that character is just kind of glanced over.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is at its best whenever Thompson and Hanks are on screen together. Their scenes are always engaging, leading to several thoughtful conversations about what a character means to its creator. Even though Travers does eventually start to warm up to Disney, the film never sells out by having her be completely won over by his vision.
For everything “Saving Mr. Banks” gets right, there are still times when it feels like the film could have gone deeper into the hard truths behind Travers and Disney’s relationship instead of going for sentimental payoffs. Then again, this is a Disney movie from the guy who directed “The Blind Side” so some overly sentimental moments are to be expected. For what we do get, this is a genuine crowd-pleaser carried by two exceptional performances. Much like Disney, it’s hard not to be won over by the film.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.