Saving Mr. Banks – A Review

Copyright The Walt Disney Company

I’m going to go ahead and get a spoiler out of the way right now: Mary Poppins ends up getting made.

I know, not a huge spoiler at all. However, Saving Mr. Banks is one of those movies that is more about he journey than the destination itself. We know that this film is about Walt Disney’s attempts to procure the film rights of Mary Poppins from P.L. Travers. The question is less “if” and more “how.” Based on a true story that focuses on two weeks of meetings and script treatment between Travers, the Sherman brothers, and screenwriter Don DaGradi, Saving Mr. Banks tackles the “how” by interweaving these meetings with flashbacks of Pamela’s childhood, as well as a few conversations with the man himself, Walt Disney.

The film opens in 1907 Australia, with a quick glimpse of Helen Goff (Travers), affectionately called Ginty by her father, Travers. In a moment of playfulness, we see a very strong bond between father and daughter. From that interaction, we are taken to 1961 England, where Travers is visited by Diarmuid Russell, her lawyer/agent in regards to an upcoming visit to California to discuss movie rights to her beloved Mary Poppins stories. Travers is reluctant to do so, having cancelled her car to the airport with full intentions of refusing to even meet Disney. However, upon informing her that she is essentially broke, with book royalties no longer coming in, Russel convinces Pamela to at least visit the studios and see if she can’t help them to come up with a story that meets her standards (One condition in the unsigned contract is that Travers gets final script approval).

What follows is a series of sessions met with frustrations from all parties involved. The Shermans and DaGradi are met with constant disapproval from Travers over everything from the design of the Banks family’s house, to the use of words in songs (Is “responstible” actually a word?), to the color red being used anywhere in the film. Of course, Walt himself wants HIS vision of the movie to be made, and is not accustomed to not getting his way. Travers is haunted by memories of her childhood, from her strong bond with an alcoholic but genuinely loving father, to the reason Mary Poppins as a character means so much to her. Pamela’s will is as strong as Walt’s, and one begins to wonder how these two will ever see eye to eye. Or, more importantly, if they can compromise.

This is honestly as much of the plot that I’m willing to give away. This is a movie that needs to be viewed rather spoiler free – although we all know the ultimate outcome, trust me, it’s quite fun to see it all play out onscreen. However, I would like to take a minute to talk about the performances.

Emma Thompson, by all means the star and lead of this movie, is fantastic in her role of P.L. Travers. Curmudgeonly, abrupt, but still not without a soul…Thompson plays this to practical perfection in every way.  Equally fantastic in an entirely different way is Paul Giamatti as Ralph, the chauffeur hired to escort Mrs. Travers to the script meetings and wherever else she is needed to travel..including a surprise trip to Disneyland. I can’t say enough about Giamatti in this role. Ralph is the ultimate optimist, extremely cheerful in a very genuine way. The unlikely relationship between “Mrs.” and Ralph is one of my absolute favorite things in the movie.

Paul Giamatti as Ralph, the chauffeur.

B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford as Robert Sherman, Richard Sherman, and Don DaGradi… these performances are also so great. While not the focus of the movie, they are integral to the story. These three men had the unenviable task of attempting to woo Travers with their vision of Mary Poppins, only to be shot down at almost every turn. The actors portray their respective counterparts quite well. Novak plays the somewhat no-nonsense Robert Sherman, ready to defend his work when pushed too far, with an air of determination, and annoyance if need be. Schwartzman plays Richard Sherman as the songster behind the piano, invoking the voice of Dick Sherman quite nicely, especially when “sounding British” on “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Whitford plays DaGradi with such a fun energy, ready to tell his story (this project is as much his baby as anyone else’s), and showing general hurt and confusion as his ideas get torn apart. The reactions of these three to Travers and her demands provide much of the comic relief of this movie.

The Sherman Brothers (BJ Novak and Jason Scwartzman) and Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) meet P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson).

Colin Farrell as Travers Goff. What a heartbreaking character. I absolutely loved Farrell’s performance as young Helen Goff’s father. Such a romantic man who taught his daughter the importance of dreams and imagination, all the while struggling with a bank job and alcoholism. Such tragedy in a character – one that meant the world to his “Ginty.” The entire story of Pamela’s family and childhood is truly heart wrenching and well played.

Travers and Margaret Goff (Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson) arrive at their new home with their children.

And then there’s the matter of Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. I’ll admit, I was very skeptical of Tom Hanks as Walt. Mainly, would I buy Hanks portraying such an important character? Would I be able to see beyond Tom Hanks? I am pleased to report, for this movie, I was. In fact, there are a few times in the movie I looked and said to myself, “Wow, that’s Walt!” Not that he ever truly became the man, but his mannerisms and public appearance performance were pretty spot on. I have to say, Tom was a good choice for the role.

Walt (Tom Hanks) takes “Pam” (Emma Thompson) to Disneyland. Mrs. Travers is not amused.

I realize this review has gotten a bit long, but I have few things I’d like to say in closing, in regards to historical accuracy and the overall theme of the film.

Keep in mind when going into this movie, while based on a true story, this is not meant that it is a verbatim telling of the story. Many will point out the historical inaccuracies of the Disneyland trip, including the fact that Walt never took Travers to Disneyland (Or the fact that he wasn’t even in town when the script meetings took place!). They will point out how much Travers hated the movie; that she didn’t have as much input in the end as the film suggests. Yes, as much as I am aware this is true, this is not uncommon for any movie based on historical events. The difference here for many will be that it tackles the sacred cow of Disney. Yes, many of us closest to the situation, most adamant lovers of Disney-fied history – we will spot the differences at once. But honestly, this isn’t something that should interfere with our enjoyment. The heart is there, and the intent to tell a great story is there as well. Is it sugar-coated? Yes. I will tell you the movie ends before Walt can tell Travers that “The ship has sailed,” in regards to her disappointment in the movie. However, there is an underlying theme in the movie about writing stories in order to give happy endings that can live on. It’s in a talk Walt has with Pamela towards the end of the movie. It’s an important talk, and perhaps why the movie was made. This movie gives the story a happy ending that can live on. With that being said, I hope this encourages many to read up on history,  including that of P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, the Sherman Brothers, and the making of Mary Poppins.

As Disney fans, there is plenty to enjoy in the movie. Keep your eyes out in Walt’s office for his memorabilia, as well as other projects he may be working on. References to Disney history are quick, and may go over the heads of casual Disney fans, but those with a love of such things will enjoy this movie. One last note: stay through the credits for photos of the actual production, as well as tapes from the script sessions with Mrs. Travers. Stay all the way to the end for a very special dedication. It was worth it to me, and I know it will be worth it to you.

In summary, this is a great movie with great performances. It pulls on the heartstrings with humor, melancholy and nostalgia. In a way, it’s perhaps the most “grown up” movie released under the Walt Disney Pictures label, at the same time, aiming at the heart of the child in all of us. Go in expecting a good (even if not 100% historically accurate) story, and you won’t be disappointed. Four out of Five Stars for me!

Saving Mr. Banks is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images. It opens in select cities December 13th 2013, nationwide December 20th, 2013.