Movies about movies rarely work. As exciting and glamorous as it might appear, the process of making a film is often tedious and boring to anyone outside of the industry, and in terms of box-office potential, audiences tend to steer clear of such films. There are, however, occasional exceptions to this rule, and Disney has aimed for this with ‘Saving Mr Banks’, a dramatisation of the making of their beloved 60s classic, ‘Mary Poppins’. Early trailers suggested it would be an easily digestible bit of fluff, but in this rare case, those early peeks were deceiving. ‘Saving Mr Banks’ makes it clear very quickly that it is something else entirely.
For nearly twenty years, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has been trying to secure the rights to the Mary Poppins books from their author, Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson). At every turn however, Travers has blocked his requests. As one last push, Disney invites Travers to journey from her London home to California to look over the development work his studio have done on the picture. Convinced she will hate the trip and the work, Travers nonetheless makes the journey, and in the process of having her great creation recreated by others, is forced to face where Mary came from, and her troubled childhood in rural Queensland with her charming yet tragic father (Colin Farrell).
Against logic and expectation, ‘Saving Mr Banks’ turns out to be an absolutely superb film, with careful and intelligent direction, a great screenplay and towering performances from its cast. A film that includes Disneyland, Walt Disney and Mary Poppins could have been a saccharine mess, but in the hands of director John Lee Hancock (whose previous work includes 2009 hit ‘The Blind Side’), the sugar-sweetness is kept to a bare minimum, along with expert handling of often (surprisingly) difficult material. The film moves smoothly between 1961 at the Disney Studios and Travers’ childhood on a remote Queensland property in 1906, a challenging task that the film achieves with aplomb. ’Banks’ is easier to describe in a nutshell as the making of ‘Mary Poppins’, but in truth, the central focus of the film is on Travers herself, and her relationship with her creation, so instead of the mechanics of filmmaking we get the mechanics of artistic creation and expression, which is much more interesting and cinematic. It's a credit to Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith that they don’t shy away from the more upsetting details of Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her imaginative but densely alcoholic father.
The storytelling in this film is specific, genuine and often incredibly funny, and this is reflected in the technical work in the movie, especially the marvellous editing from Mark Livolsi and terrific score from Thomas Newman. The assistance of Walt Disney Studios also adds to the realism and texture of the film, with access not only to actual locations such as Disney’s specially-designed backlot and Disneyland itself, but details about Disney that you wouldn’t expect to find in a film from the studio. Travers is presented with all her flaws and ticks, and refreshingly, Disney is given mostly the same treatment.
The real success of the film is down to its delicate and respectful performances. The leads are backed up by a cracking supporting cast, including Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the creatives behind the ‘Mary Poppins’, and Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver while she is in California. Colin Farrell does some of his best work in years as Travers’ father, a sparkling performance full of life but with the hints of tragedy always in the background. As expected, Tom Hanks makes a cracker Walt Disney, a part he always seemed built to play, and to his immense credit, his performance gives us Disney as a man rather than a legend. We know now that he was one of the most significant artists of the last century, but Hanks gives us a fleeting portrait of him as a concerned father, a hard-working and supportive employer and a slightly unhinged dreamer. Every moment he is on screen is a pleasure. And then there’s Emma Thompson, who gives one of the finest performances, not just of the year, but of her career. Thompson is a revelation as Travers, a performance that balances her cold refusal to compromise with tremendous pain and tragedy. In lesser hands, Travers could have been the typical cantankerous British toff, but Thompson has always had a keen talent for showing the complexities inherent in an artist (like her superb performance in 2006 film ‘Stranger Than Fiction’), so that Travers becomes a suit of armour we watch slowly crumble, defensive yet deeply sensitive. I don’t doubt that much of the success of the film is down to her performance, its beating heart and soul.
Emma Thompson gives one of the finest performances, not just of the year, but of her career.
There is one other character always present in the film, and that is the film it’s talking about. There wouldn’t be many people who haven’t seen and adored the 1964 film adapted from Travers’ book, but what ‘Saving Mr Banks’ does so beautifully and honestly is remind you why this film has endured and why it is continually rediscovered by each generation. Hancock weaves ‘Mary Poppins’ into the fabric of the film, using its images and sounds to enrich and enhance many dramatic beats. One moment in particular, a devastating demonstration of the depths of her father’s alcoholism, is made even more powerful by the presence of material from the 1964 film. It’s difficult to describe their techniques without giving anything away, but they provide some of the most memorable moments of the film.
By moving away from the making-of story and focusing on the people involved in the creation of a great work of art, ‘Saving Mr Banks’ succeeds where many before it have failed. This is a powerful and joyful film on how storytelling is created, a genuine surprise when you consider the mess it might have been. Emma Thompson will walk into an Oscar nomination with her performance as Pamela Travers, and I have no doubt the film will be embraced by audiences with open arms. It’s that rare kind of film from a studio, one that takes you on a stirring emotional journey, unafraid to throw significant punches when necessary, and leave you feeling exhausted and exhilarated. It has "instant classic" written all over every lovingly-made frame.