Walt Disney was a man at the crossroads at the beginning of the 1960s. He’d spent the previous three decades making major innovations in family entertainment. He created beloved, iconic characters (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, to name a few); added sound and color to animated films; released the first commercial film in stereophonic sound (Fantasia); and topped it all off by opening a triumphantly successful theme park celebrating his creations. He conquered television, too — but it was time for another “big one” — and there was one project that had eluded him for 20 years.
Disney’s daughters adored P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, about a stern but magical nanny who helps a family in its time of need. Travers had regularly turned down all of Disney’s offers to make a film of it, fearful that he’d transform her character into just another one of his “silly” cartoons. In 1961, in need of money, she finally acquiesced, provided she could maintain complete creative control.
Saving Mr. Banks takes place during this developmental period, when Disney (Tom Hanks) flies Travers (Emma Thompson) out to his Burbank lot to work with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Of course, she hates everything, from the California sun to the Sherman Brothers’ music to the — God forbid — suggestion that there should be some animation in the film.
This story is told in parallel with flashbacks to the author’s difficult childhood in 1900s Australia and her relationship with her beloved but hopelessly alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). In him — and especially in her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who arrives with a carpetbag to straighten the family up — we see the origins of the characters in her books and her reasons for protecting them from “Disneyfication.”
Thompson’s Travers is the very definition of imperious — so buttoned up it’s a wonder she can even breathe. There’s an amusing scene early on in the film when she arrives at the Beverly Hills Hotel and is confronted by stuffed replicas of the Disney characters. Scoffing, she jams them all into a closet.
Hanks’ Disney is pretty much the man America knew as everyone’s beloved “Uncle Walt,” although the filmmakers do allow a couple of his quirks to slip in. In one scene, he furtively extinguishes a cigarette when Travers rushes into his office (he never let the public see him smoke, although it was lung cancer that killed him at age 65). And when he takes her on a tour of Disneyland, when throngs rush to him for autographs, he pulls pre-signed cards out of his pocket and hands them out.
Among the supporting characters, Whitford is fun as the much-put-upon DaGradi, as are Schwartzman and Novak as the singing Shermans. Kathy Baker is amusing as Walt’s wry assistant, and Paul Giamatti has a nice role as Travers’ driver. In fact, he’s her Jiminy Cricket.
Yes, Saving Mr. Banks is manipulative and over-the-top, but in a good way. And it’s admirable that the studio would take the risky step of taking on a project that involves holding a mirror up to itself, its legendary founder and one of its most beloved films.
It’s certainly not a “warts and all” exposé — nor do we want it to be. Instead, it makes gentle fun of the clichés everyone knows and leaves the intense drama to the Australia scenes (featuring a heartbreakingly charming Farrell), which earned the film its PG-13 rating. And just to satisfy us that the film is not all made-up hooey, an actual recording of one of Travers’ script editing session with DaGradi and the Shermans is played over the end credits. It’s a smart and affecting punctuation point — and one worth staying for.
Most of the film was shot on the Disney lot, which needs no dressing to take it back to the ‘60s. It looks good, too. DP John Schwartzman gives the Burbank scenes a golden hue, and the Australian sequences are appropriately sunscorched. Director John Lee Hancock, himself a Disney vet, knows how to pluck the heartstrings.
Is Saving Mr. Banks Disney’s Sunset Boulevard? Not really — in fact, quite the opposite. It’s a reaffirmation of the magical spell that the Disney name continues to cast over children of all ages. And that’s the way it should be.