If I told you that the latest film from Disney was warm, uplifting and moving, your reaction might be, "I've seen this before." Well, guess what? You haven't. Saving Mr. Banks does have all of those qualities, but it also has an emotional depth that you don't see in many commercial films these days. Yes, it's heartwarming and it's for the child in all of us; it's also beautifully written, directed, photographed, edited and acted and takes the viewer on a sensitive journey that addresses topics such as trust, friendship and the loss of a loved one. It is the best film I've seen this year.
The film is set primarily in 1961 as P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, is persuaded by her agent to go to Hollywood and accept the offer of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to make her book into a feature film. Travers is set against this, fearing her beloved creation will be "Disneyized" and made into a cute family film, but as sales have dried up and royalties are shrinking, she changes her mind and makes the flight to Los Angeles, for what she thinks will be a relatively brief period.
Once there, she meets Richard and Robert Sherman, who are assigned to writing the songs for the film; Travers doesn't even like the idea of this film as a musical, so you can imagine how well she gets along with them. She's quite bitchy in her attitude toward everyone from her driver (Paul Giamatti) who picks her up every day for the ride from her hotel to the Disney offices all the way up the ladder to Mr. Disney himself.
This situation alone would have made for a good film, but this work takes on greater complexity, as we are given the story of Travers as a little girl in Australia early in the 20th century. It's the relationship she as with her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell in a gem of a performance), who takes her on flights of fancy with her imagination, that reveals much about Travers' insight into writing her book as well as why she fears the Disney treatment of her work. The flashbacks are filmed with such detail and visual beauty (cinematographer John Schwartzman is keen on the soft sunlight of the Australian frontier in these segments); clearly this was a time in her life that has remained deep in the psyche of Travers.
Combining these two stories works well for numerous reasons. As moments of her past are revealed, we understand why Travers loved her father so much and why she wants the character of Mr. Banks in the film to be so precise. There are other requests - seemingly trivial at the time - that the author makes to the creative team that make a great deal of sense, once we learn of her childhood.
Arguably the finest sequence in the film is the one where director John Lee Hancock meshes the two worlds together; as the Shermans perform the "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" song for Travers at the rehearsal studio, flashbacks take us to a particular moment in her life where she saw her father in a new light, one that would take on a deeper meaning in her soul. The whimsy and energy of the Sherman brothers performing their latest creation contrasted with the melancholy of Travers as she remembers a significant moment from her childhood is a key to understanding what both Travers and the Disney team must do if they are to make this film. The surface level of Mary Poppins as a book or movie may seem light and fluffy, but at the core, this is a disturbing memoir for the author.
The two leads, Thomson and Hanks, are marvelous performers and have a nice chemistry together. Emma Thompson is especially wonderful, as she basically has to play a bitch, yet she wins us over with her honesty, determination and finally her willingness to work together with the creative team. I can't imagine another actress in this role. As for Hanks, while he has received a great deal of notice for his excellent work in Captain Phillips, I think he is even better here, as he brings a minimalist approach to the character of Walt Disney. He's on screen only about half as much as Thompson, but when he speaks, his words are well chosen for effect. This is one of the most enjoyable and precise performances he's given in sometime.
This is a technically accomplished film; lensman Scwartzman, editor Mark Livolsi and costume designer Daniel Orlandi are deserve special mention and are worthy of Oscar nominations. Thomas Newman's original score, which will probably be overlooked amidst the famous songs the Shermans wrote for Mary Poppins, is excellent, setting the emotional tone throughout the film in a sensitive and mature manner.
Hancock takes a relatively light approach with this material; yes, this is highly emotional and many audience members would be smart to bring their Kleenex, but his direction is not heavy handed. He deals with the personal moments of Travers's memories with the proper attitude and lets the story play out with all its joyful and bittersweet moments. Hancock's last work was the saccahrine-infused The Blind Side; this is a much better film and the director handles this material with greater sensitivity and style.
I walked into Saving Mr. Banks expecting an interesting film to be sure, but honestly did not know how lovely this work would be. Credit to everyone - including screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith - for making such a moving film that deals with the memories of youth in such an honest and enchanting way.