You want a tear-jerker? John Lee Hancock can make a tear-jerker. Oh, yeah, sure, Saving Mr. Banks is a “Disney” picture, and that fact sells a lot more tickets than Mr. Hancock’s name does, I believe in giving praise where praise is due. Although the director’s name is not featured in any of Disney’s promotion of Saving Mr. Banks, with the aid of a well-written script and some marvelous acting by a few of the finest film actors working today, Mr. Hancock has done it again. If you saw The Rookie (the Dennis Quaid one, not the Clint Eastwood one) a decade or so ago, or The Blind Side more recently, then you know what I mean.
This interpretation of the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) doggedly pursued and browbeat author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into granting him the film rights to the first of her beloved children’s books featuring the supernanny Mary Poppins. Armed with storyboards and songs already created for the proposed movie, he and his creative team try their darndest to convince Travers that her fears of her dearest creation being corrupted are unfounded, although they seemingly fail miserably in the attempt. We see how some of everyone’s favorite tunes from the resulting movie were created, and how Mrs. Travers did her best to passively-aggressively sabotage Disney’s team’s efforts at almost every turn.
As we follow these events, we also see flashbacks to turn-of-the-(twentieth) century Australia, and how Mrs. Travers, then a mere child of eight years, shared a very close bond with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), as both father and daughter were dreamers incredibly vivid imaginations. They travel to a small hamlet off in the Australian boondocks, apparently so the father can take a new job, and he does his best to make their near-poverty as bearable as possible with all sorts of make-believe tales with his daughters, but his ever-present flask of hooch and looks of disapproval from his wife shows us that he needs something more to dull the ache of his failures. The events of Mrs. Travers’ childhood have such influence on her dealings with the Disney folks fifty years later that the two storylines are by necessity intertwined.
Tom Hanks may be a bit beefier in the face than Old Walt was, but his mannerisms are spot-on. He is marvelous here, but we have come to expect nothing less from him. Emma Thompson also gives an awards-worthy performance, doing her usual fantastic job of portraying the “proper” English lady with something of an attitude. With the pedigree of these two mega-star actors, my singing their praises would not give you any information that you would not already assume before seeing the movie, so I’ll use this space to give some kudos to Colin Farrell.
I’ve long thought that Farrell is one of the more under-appreciated film actors of this generation. His films have rarely been huge commercial successes, and his sometimes tabloid-fodder personal life may keep him from receiving more accolades than he has to date, but his performance here just reaffirms my belief in his talent, primarily making an audience sympathetic to his character. We saw it in In Bruges, we saw it (albeit briefly) in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and even in London Boulevard (although it didn’t help that movie so much). This movie is the high point of his career so far, in my humble opinion.
Although there are plenty of lighter moments in Saving Mr. Banks, it is a very touching story of must how much a child’s life is molded and shaped by his or her parents’ love, and how parents express that love. The movie struck me with a notion that is probably so obvious to many of you - how grave a responsibility being a parent is; how every word spoken and action taken, especially those not even intended to be life lessons, is absorbed by a child and used as a guideline for their own decision-making someday. P.L. Travers’ father, obviously a man who loved his children with a passion not many men may equal, used his imagination and love of tale-spinning not only to mold his daughter’s personality and set her course as a storyteller in her own right, but also as a means of getting his entire family through their difficult times.
Of course, a movie like this could only have been made by the Disney studios. The rights issues involved with Old Walt’s likeness alone mean that only the Mouse House could do it, but one would be hard-pressed to name another studio or production company who can create such a heart-warming tale. If you can recall those live-action Disney films from the 60s like Follow me, Boys, or more recent ones like Invincible, then you’ll understand my meaning. Especially touching is a scene in which Old Walt explains to Mrs. Travers that he finally understands the real meaning of Mary Poppins, and just how much it means to Mrs. Travers, and why he can be entrusted to translate that story to film faithfully.
I didn’t see Mary Poppins myself until I was over forty years of age, so while I do find it a very good movie, it has never held a very dear place in my heart. I do accept that it does for countless others, though, so If you are one of those folks, then I believe you would enjoy this tale of how one of your favorite stories came to the silver screen. Even if you aren’t one of those people, however, you would indeed be a heartless creature if you didn’t find this lovely story as endearing as the tale of the mysterious nanny with the magical umbrella.