Saving Mr. Banks

Posted: December 27, 2013 in Movie Reviews


It’s always fascinating to discover what goes on behind the scenes, in nearly every area of life. We read a good book and we want to know what influenced the author to create the story and describe the characters that were written. We look at the incandescent light bulb and wonder what men like Tesla and Edison went through to make it accessible to the general public. We watch a classic movie that’s been around for decades that we have come to so endearingly love, but often are unaware of its evolution from page to screen. For nearly 50 years, Mary Poppins has delighted audiences of every age and ethnicity with its whimsical spirit and charming-yet-classic songs. But what many don’t know is the story behind the story about the hurdles that went into brining this now-timeless film to life.


Summary: (No spoilers)

With no royalties coming in from her writing, author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson—–Sense and Sensibility) is forced to sell the rights to her book “Mary Poppins” to an eager Walt Disney (Tom Hanks—–Forrest Gump), who has been trying to acquire the rights for the past 20 years. Her conditions: the film must be made exactly to her precise specifications. But much to her utter dismay, she discovers that Walt does not share her same opinions, who plans on taking her pragmatic story and turning it into a musical filled with whimsy and animated animals.

At first, Mrs. Travers is disgusted at the thought of her beloved Mary cavorting in a ridiculous manner, as most characters in the “silly” Disney cartoons have. As the film progresses, however, Walt eventually learns about Travers’ personal connection to the story which, she says, has nothing to do with the children or even Mary Poppins herself, but with Mr. Banks, the father. As the film delves deeper into the background origins of P.L. Travers’ book, we see how much of her own life is interweaved within the story, and we learn why she so passionately insists on the film makers staying within the exact tone of the story.


 It’s often difficult to discover the in-depth truth about the things we love in life, because the truth can often taint our perfect image we have of those things; in this case, Mary Poppins. We’ve grown up with it, we’ve adored it, we’ve lived it, and we’ve eventually passed it on to the next generation. It’s a timeless and endearing classic. But Saving Mr. Banks strives to depict that it wasn’t always supposed to be the light-hearted fluff that it eventually came to be.

There are a myriad of things to admire about this film. Coming from director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), you know that it will have no lack of heart and emotion, as well as a style of film-making that you become completely invested in. Being an ardent Disney aficionado myself, I personally found myself enthralled with every facet of the story. The topic itself is near and dear to me.

SAVING MR. BANKS_Emma Thompson-Tom Hanks

 The cast is absolutely perfect, starting with Emma Thompson who thinks of every possible way and utilizes every opportunity to adequately portray the real P.L. Travers while adding just a hint of expression and sparkle of her own. Thompson hands in a performance far above the ordinary while staying within the boundaries established by her character. She depicts a woman who would drive anybody to the brink of insanity, a woman who you glare at indignantly when she sacrilegiously speaks of how silly Disney films are. But the only character in the film larger in our eyes than P.L. Travers is good old Uncle Walt, brilliantly portrayed by the incomparable Tom Hanks. Hanks is a seasoned actor and has been in this business for long enough to truly understand that the key to accurately playing and representing any historical figure is an enormous amount of research and astute dedication to the role.

Walt Disney is certainly no easy person to depict. His child-like glow and larger-than-life personality was what made him the loveable, personable man that he was. Choosing the right actor to properly portray that likeable charm is no simple task, because you need someone who can bring to the screen everything that Walt was as well as bearing a resemblance to him. Being a great admirer of Walt Disney, I was just as nervous as I was eager to see how he would handle filling in the proverbial shoes. Fortunately for Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks makes a delightful Walt. Look for both Tom Hanks’ and Emma Thompson’s names at this year’s academy awards.

While I could go on for several more paragraphs describing how enjoyable and charming and how much of a feel-good film this is, the simple truth is that underneath its cotton candy exterior lies a somber and even heart-wrenching story that is sure to provoke tears from the audience. At the heart of it all—–past Disneyland, past dancing penguins, past the merry songs and the kite flying—–is a sub-story about Travers’ real life father and the tragic addictions he succumbed to. Throughout the main course of events, we’re treated to flashbacks through her eyes that seek to tell the real story behind Mary Poppins. It progresses as the main story does, and through it we learn how much Mary Poppins truly means to Travers.

SAVING MR. BANKS_Colin Farrell

 But I think what I especially appreciated the most about the film was the way in which you eventually come to realize that Disneyland and Mickey Mouse is to Walt what Mary Poppins is to P.L. Travers: products of their bitter childhoods. Through brief dialogue revolving around his younger days, Walt at one point personally admits to her that his childhood was just as bleak as hers was, and that underneath its cheerful façade, Disneyland is really his childhood come to life. The trains, the boats, Main Street, the adventure, the imagination, these are all the little things that Walt embraced in his drear upbringings. And like P.L. Travers—–whose story is as real as they get—–Walt also is a storyteller who channels his personal life into his park and films. That’s when the realization occurs, that even though it initially seemed as if Walt Disney considered Mary Poppins as merely one more brick in the Disney Empire, the stark truth is that he understood more than most that these kinds of stories are to be protected and cherished. Now, whether or not Walt made a film that P.L. Travers could be proud of is another matter entirely.

Which brings us to another matter I had concerns over: accurate depiction. The same question that is constantly brought up during these “based on a true story” films is, “Is that how it really happened?” I too was wondering how the Disney Company would accurately depict what really happened without stepping on their own toes. I mean, Walt really did make his own film, not Travers’, and he did defy her wishes in nearly every way (and I do mean every way), and she ended up loathing the final product. So how does Disney faithfully show this while still being able to end the film convincing the audience that this was ultimately all alright? Do the ends justify the means?

But, at the end of the day, what happened happened, Travers hated it, and Mary Poppins is one of the most beloved films of all time. Judge for yourself whether the ends justified the means. But all I can say is that at the end of the film when Travers is watching Mary Poppins for the first time at the premiere, despite her utter abhorrence with the animated penguins and the silly songs and the desolation of her beloved book, the underlying story of Mr. Banks—–after everything we’ve seen regarding her personal relationship to the character—–is enough to make her openly weep in the theater, which makes us openly weep in our theater.

In a nutshell:

Regardless of whether or not the Disney Company sugar-coated the story ever so slightly to make it more favorable to themselves, the fact of the matter is that Saving Mr. Banks  takes every opportunity to make an engaging film that reaches deep within ourselves and pulls at our emotions in a fresh way: with our nostalgia. It’s magical in a way that only Disney could do. A superb cast, a deep and riveting narrative, a delightful score, and heart-felt emotion blends together to make one of the best cinematic experiences of this year that will leave you hypnotized and will make you see Mary Poppins in a way that you never have before.


9 stars

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