When I heard about Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of the time author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) flew to California to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) as the Hollywood producer tried to convince her of releasing the rights to a series of books she wrote about a flying nanny, I thought it would only work if it were to set up a dialogue between two movies. As it stands now, Saving Mr. Banks features two movies feeding off of each other, they’re just not the movies I expected. It is not a dialogue between Disney’s classic Mary Poppins, and the movie about the early days of its production. The dialogue is restricted to a single movie: Saving Mr. Banks, which is, in effect, two movies in one. Two movies whose relationship isn’t as much a dialogue as it is a confrontation.
The one movie is the one I described in the above paragraph. In it, cold and very British Pamela Travers refuses to grant the rights to her most precious creation. She doesn’t want the movie to a be a musical, to feature animation or to include Dick Van Dyke because she feels very strongly about the integrity of her work. So it’s up to good old Walt Disney and the creative team in charge of developing the movie (which includes Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as songwriting legends Robert and Richard Sherman) to convince her that the work they’re doing is worth surrendering her characters. As you might know, I’m a huge fan of the work of Walt Disney and his company, so a movie that is basically a behind-the-scenes look at the production of one of his best and most beloved movies would be something I’d very easily enjoy watching. And despite a few problems with the whole concept (to which I’ll come back in a moment), I did.
Emma Thompson is one of the best living actresses, she is a completely brilliant in the role of Travers, and she really should work more often, because she is fantastic. And Tom Hanks is surprisingly effective and charming as Disney. Not only that, but everyone in the supporting cast is very good too, particularly Paul Giamatti, who has a funny and ultimately very soulful role as the driver assigned to Travers during her stay in Los Angeles. The movie is at times very funny, always entertaining, and yes, does get involve in the type of middlebrow sentimentality that you would expect from such a movie, but it works. Thompson is more than capable of conveying the inner struggle the author must go through in order to “give up” a character that has she created out of the deepest and most hurtful of her childhood memories. It’s a pity that the film doesn’t have the confidence to believe her performance would be enough for the audience to understand the character’s dilemma.
That’s when the second movie that lives inside Saving Mr. Banks comes into place. It is a story told in flashbacks that presents Travers’ childhood in Australia, where we learn about her caring, but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), and the relationship that would turn her into the person she became as an adult. These sequences are simply unbearable. They are infused with so much earnest overtly sweet sentimentality that they feel completely lifeless. If these flashback sequences were all the story told in Saving Mr. Banks, it would be one of the worst movies of the year. So, thankfully, we have the entertaining stuff. On the other hand, though, these flashbacks keep intercutting the narrative, constantly slowing things down and making the movie kind of slog to get through. There is one scene that integrates the flashbacks into the main narrative, and it works very well, earning one of the movie’s best emotional moments. However, it could have worked on its own; we don’t really need all the other time spent in Travers’s childhood home.
The flashbacks are the movie’s biggest problem, but not the only one. There is an aspect of the film that make it fundamentally problematic to me, and it’s that it has a skewed perspective on the matter of Travers’s novels being adapted into films. History has it so that the author was never really satisfied with the end result. Because this movie is produced by Disney, and because Mary Poppins, the movie, is such a beloved classic, Saving Mr. Banks does try to make a big case for the movie’s adaptation being a triumph. I can live with that fact, if only, because there is a genuinely heartfelt arch to Travers as a character, and because the performances by Thompson and Hanks are charming enough to convince me that, yes, Mary Poppins is an awesome movie and we’re better off for it existing. At the same time, though, the movie ends up beating its own drum a little too loudly in a third act that seems to go on forever while making the exact same point over and over. This, along with the insufferable flashbacks, are why despite two great performances and some hugely entertaining sequences, I can’t ultimately say Saving Mr. Banks is a good movie.
Grade: 5 out of 10