It’s a curious fact of fiction that authorial intent is occasionally lost to audience interpretation, and in director John Lee Hancock’s elegant biographical drama Saving Mr. Banks, we discover how it took one of the 20th century’s most cherished storytellers two decades to learn the secret of the book he longed to translate to the silver screen. The result is a Disney movie for the young at heart -- an absorbing meditation on the power of imagination, and a thoughtful tale of transformation and growth. And though its mature themes of death and grief may be lost on younger viewers, they’re presented with a level of restraint that gives them gravity without weighing down the film’s infectious sense of wonder.
A doting father, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) once promised his adoring daughters that he would bring their favorite fictional nanny, Mary Poppins, to life on the big screen. Little does Walt realize that surly author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) has no intention of seeing her most famous creation bastardized for moviegoers, a fact that makes keeping his promise exceedingly difficult. Years later, when Travers' book sales begin to slow, dwindling finances drive her to schedule a meeting with Disney to discuss the movie rights to the beloved story. For two weeks in 1961, a determined Disney pulls out all the stops to convince Travers that the film version of Mary Poppins will be wondrous and respectful; meanwhile, the author only grows more convinced that she made the right move in preventing the proposed adaptation. Later, just when it begins to appear that the rights to Mary Poppins have slipped through his fingers, the ingenious Disney reflects back on his own difficult childhood and realizes that a sensitive chapter from Travers' youth could be the key to clinching the deal.
Developing a compelling angle for a biographical drama can be tricky business for a screenwriter, but by combining the stories of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, scribes Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith find a hook that gets to the heart of two real-life figures who built their careers on entertainment for children. By intercutting the events of those fateful two weeks in 1961 with moments from Travers’ childhood, Marcel and Smith explore the source of the author’s vivid imagination while simultaneously exposing the core of her famous character. That’s no simple task, but thanks to the efforts of a talented cast and a focused director, the two writers achieve their goal with style and creativity to spare.
Of course, two-time Oscar winner and three-time BAFTA winner Thompson plays no small part in bringing that vision to life, but praise must also go to newcomer Annie Rose Buckley for her endearing portrayal of the frigid author in her formative years, as well as the versatile Colin Farrell as her well-meaning yet deeply flawed father, whose vivid imagination planted the seeds of creativity in the young girl, and whose premature death resulted in the creation of Mary Poppins. Although it’s heartbreaking to see the starry-eyed child watch her father drift away as her mother falls into deep despair, it’s a joy to see the adult Travers learn to let go while being swept off her feet by a man whose creative legacy would prove to be enormously influential even long after his death.
Despite the considerable efforts undertaken to pull off a convincing double period piece, no one with working eyes will be tricked into believing that Hanks is the spitting image of old Uncle Walt. But like the best actors, Hanks uses mannerisms and practiced vocal inflections to capture his subject’s essence. Likewise, though some will no doubt cry foul over the decision to gloss over some of Disney’s less endearing peccadilloes (such as his heavy smoking habit, which is only briefly addressed in passing), this isn’t an expose but a gently endearing tale of persistence and perseverance.
If all of this makes it sound like only a few select filmmakers and a handful of actors were responsible for making Saving Mr. Banks an affecting drama, then it would be a sad oversight not to mention the trio of Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak as, respectively, screenwriter Don DaGradi, lyricist Richard Sherman, and composer Robert Sherman. The scenes in which the scribe and songwriters strive to impress the stuffy author not only provide Saving Mr. Banks with some of its most memorably amusing passages, but also serve to highlight the ways in which their positivity and creative vision prompt Travers down the path of self-reflection. Paul Giamatti also manages to make a big impression in a minor supporting role as Travers’ limo driver -- a personable man who breaks down the distant author’s emotional barrier by quietly voicing some of his most intimate fears.
A film about Walt Disney in the early 1960s would be nothing without a trip back to the Disneyland of yesteryear, and the creative powers behind Saving Mr. Banks transport us back to that magical place in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without a time machine. And though the scenes in the world-famous park may be little more than a few fleeting moments in a movie punctuated by deep melancholy, they serve as a reminder of Disney’s undying devotion to the power of imagination, as well as the magic that sometimes sprouts from humble beginnings.
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