Film Review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

The tone for John Lee Hancock’s pleasingly sentimental and richly layered Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is effectively set by a well-chosen verse from Disney’s seminal colour musical, Mary Poppins: “Wind’s in the east, mist coming in/Like something is brewing, about to begin.” Emma Thompson dons a frumpy cardigan as the prim, proper and deliciously pompous P.L. Travers, the author of the 1934 children’s classic. We first meet Travers as a playful, dedicated daughter to her adoring, banker father (Colin Farrell), living in the arid Australian outback. Fast forward to the early 1960s and that playful girl has transformed into a sour-faced author.

Due to some substantial fiscal worries, Travers finds herself having to potentially give in to the demands of the master of the mouse, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who for the past twenty years has been attempting to acquire the rights to Mary Poppins for a live action adaptation. Now, it would be fair to say that a movie about Disney meeting an English author could be a saccharine slice of nostalgia, wrapped in a gaudy, glossy bow. Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s script magically blends the past and contextual present, examining a fascinating slice of cinema history with a personal tale of how the most painful of childhood memories can often give birth to the most wondrous of creations.

As much as Saving Mr. Banks is undeniably bewitched by Disney and Travers’ troubled odd-couple relationship, it also goes far deeper. It’s a tale transfixed by where stories come from and how far authors, moviemakers and visionaries will go to protect their creations from the murky world of consumerism. Thompson’s Travers is gleefully rude and uptight, but above all she doesn’t want to give her book to the movie mogul who she believes will cheapen her work with twinkling animations and all manner of crass singing and dancing. We gradually learn why she feels so strongly about her creation over the course of the narrative through flashbacks to her troubled upbringing. Her artistic creation was not just about writing a charming and much loved tale; it was an act of catharsis to preserve the happy memories and cope with her inner demons.

Thomas Newman carefully lifts and pays homage to the music of the 1964 film, managing to blend the original melodies with a softer, slower and adding a more modern magical (and less show tune-like) tone to the proceedings. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak also offer a great double act as the Sherman Brothers, but it’s Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver Ralph who steals the limelight, acting as a chirpy foil to Thompson’s oddly charming, ill-tempered writer. Comparisons can and will be made with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), which equally captures the magic of the movies. Saving Mr. Banks, however, has a darker gear; a nostalgic melancholia that swoons in the wonder of imagination and storytelling.

This review was originally published on 21 October, 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.

Joe Walsh