Saving Mr. Banks is a film with a self-selecting audience. Those Disney diehards are of course predisposed to like the film, which covers a two week period where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) brought P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), creator of Mary Poppins, to Los Angeles to sign-off on the rights to the film version. Going into the film, I was concerned that it would basically be the world’s most elaborate DVD extra.
Sadly, that’s still the case. The film is basically a fluff piece, but a thoroughly entertaining one nonetheless. Wisely splitting its time between 1961 Los Angeles and Travers’ childhood in 1907 Australia, the film makes explicit the connections between her early years and her later work. While the connections made are sometimes very on-the-nose, the film never gets too melodramatic. Colin Farrell is well-utilized as Travers Goff, P.L.’s father, and the part-inspiration for the Mr. Banks character in Mary Poppins. The Disney employees Ms. Travers works with include co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the legendary songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Paul Giamatti also shows up in a small role as Ralph, Ms. Travers’ driver.
Turning a book series into a Technicolor song and dance musical is an interesting proposition, but the film largely shows most of the concept work already done. Instead it focuses on the prickly Ms. Travers and her dismissive attitude toward the Disney team. We’ve always known Thompson plays standoffish well, but it’s fun to see her really let loose in this role.
Thompson and Hanks carry most of the film, and they do a fantastic job grounding the film in the relationship between Disney and Travers. It’s a simple, paint-by-numbers, feel good film that only demands the audience’s heart. Briskly paced, this is sure to be a delight for fans, but still feels ancillary to the classic film, since it is more about how the film came to be rather than why.
Saving Mr. Banks opens in Philadelphia-area theaters today.