If there’s one thing director John Lee Hancock gets right in Saving Mr. Banks—unlike his previous directing venture, The Blind Side—is presenting us with a lovably bitchy character. With Sandra Bullock having won an undeserving Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, it means we better see Emma Thompson at least nominated for playing Pamela “P.L.” Travers (author of Mary Poppins), the focal point of Saving Mr. Banks. Same goes for Tom Hanks who embodies the spirit—if not quite the exact look—of Walt Disney. He does far more in his performance than even Sir Anthony Hopkins did as Alfred Hitchcock last year.
Saving Mr. Banks is about the making of Mary Poppins, make no mistake about that, but we’re also treated to an inside glimpse of Travers’ inspirations. Backstory and flashbacks make up quite a large portion of the story as we see her childhood in Queensland, Australia, dealing with her doting, alcoholic father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell) and her slowly breaking-down mother Pamela (Ruth Wilson). The film alternates between her childhood and 1961 as Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt who has been seeking the movie rights to her beloved Mary Poppins for 20 years.
Pamela is convinced he will ruin her books and continues to hold the rights hostage as she meets daily with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songwriting brothers Richard M. (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert B. Sherman (B.J. Novak). Meanwhile, Walt bides his time finding out what makes Pamela tick, while she rants and raves about everything from Mr. Banks’ mustache to “Mary Poppins doesn’t sing!” But Walt will have her sign off the film rights if it’s the last thing he does. Even if it means trying to persuade her with a trip to his “money-printing machine,” aka the happiest place on Earth: Disneyland—complete with a guided tour by Walt himself.
Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith do a wonderful job squeezing in nods to the Mary Poppins film, maintaining the mystery behind Pamela’s reasoning for most of the runtime. As I said, if either Thompson or Hanks aren’t nominated, it would be a travesty. This is also the best film of director Hancock’s career. Whether it’s Best Picture-worthy is not up to me, but I honestly don’t think so. If it’s nominated than good on it; however, I have seen better this year. But the performances definitely deserve their due. However, Saving Mr. Banks is also not the family film of the year as it may look on the surface. This is a biopic through and through. Children will undoubtedly be bored by most of the proceedings, but for older audiences, it is exactly the kind of warm and fuzzy film we expect around the holidays. And we couldn’t ask for anything more, especially from the House of Mouse.