It's hard to remember the last time either
Emma Thompson or Tom Hanks gave a bad performance. Those two rock-steady performers are a big reason why "Saving Mr. Banks" is such a rewarding experience.
The new movie revolves around two weeks in 1961 when an extremely reluctant P.L. Travers (Thompson), the author of the popular "Mary Poppins" series of children's books, travels from her home in England to Disney Studios in Los Angeles to collaborate on adapting the book for film. For 20 years, she's rebuffed Walt Disney's advances to make this happen, not wanting her beloved characters to be altered by Hollywood. Financial woes have forced her to reconsider and make the trip, though she still holds a trump card — she hasn't relinquished the book's film rights to Disney.
Hanks stars as successful entrepreneur Disney, who's determined to bring the story of the magical nanny to the big screen and fulfill a promise he made to his daughters when they were young and loved to read the book. Walt makes concessions for P.L. (for Pamela Lyndon) he'd never make for anyone else as he tries to persuade the eccentric, staid writer.
The movie shifts back and forth from 1961 to 1906 Australia, where we see P.L. as a child, growing up with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), put-upon mother (Ruth Wilson)
and little sister Biddy (Lily Bigham). They move to a small town when her father takes the latest in a series of bank manager jobs. As these parallel stories progress, we see how her childhood shaped the story of "Mary Poppins" and why these characters are like family to her.
Though Walt Disney orchestrated her visit to America, the three people who have to win her over are screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman), who penned many award-winning tunes for Disney — along with the earworm "It's a Small World After All." (You're welcome.)
One of P.L. Travers' many eccentricities was her insistence that all of the collaboration sessions be recorded, a boon for this new film's screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, who were able to hear those recordings. Those scenes ring particularly true and are the best part of the film. Whitford, Novak and Schwartzman all hand in strong performances, as does Paul Giamatti as Ralph, who is assigned to drive the decorous author around Disneyland.
The scenes in Australia are interesting, but there's no way to know how much is true and how much the writers used of her childhood as cinematic device. Through the flashbacks, we come to realize that Mary Poppins really came to the Banks' home to save the father, not the children, hence the title of the film.
Thompson is excellent as P.L. Travers; expect her among the next round of Oscar nominations. Hanks has less screen time than Thompson, but in some ways he has the bigger challenge because Disney had a very public persona due to his many years hosting the many anthology TV series he created.
In a smart move, Hanks doesn't try to mimic the avuncular creator of "The Happiest Place on Earth," but he seeks to capture the essence of the man. He's mostly successful, but I never quite shook the feeling that I was watching Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney, rather than seeing Disney brought to life.
Given that "Mary Poppins" was made into an Oscar-winning movie, the outcome of "Saving Mr. Banks" is never in doubt, but the journey is still well worth watching.