"Saving Mr. Banks" Is An Enchanting Nostalgia Trip

For all the positive feelings typically associated with creativity, it can be an inimitably agonizing process. Not just the act of creation, but the journey that predisposes said creativity – followed by the process of dredging up those painful memories to siphon out every last drop of inspiration. According to Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” such was the case with Pamela “P.L.” Travers, the temperamental British author of “Mary Poppins.” As played by Emma Thompson, the character is one of those artists with various skeletons in various shallow graves, whose character flaws are deeper set than they appear at first glance.

“Saving Mr. Banks” begins in England in 1960. A successful but increasingly destitute Pamela Lyndon Travers has repeatedly rejected requests to adapt “Mary Poppins” into a feature film. The suitor that’s been hounding her from afar? Walt Disney, played here by Tom Hanks. Travers is obsessively attached to Poppins, but so is Disney – and Travers’ finances are in such disarray that she has no choice but to agree to an exploratory meeting. After much huffing and puffing, she boards a plane to California.

But the film’s aim isn’t nearly as straightforward as its setup suggests. The film’s twofold narrative quickly becomes apparent, with at least a third of running time devoted to Travers’ turbulent upbringing in Australia near the turn of the century. Director John Lee Hancock systematically cuts back and forth between past and present, the former artfully dovetailing with the latter. In these flashbacks, Colin Farrell features as Travers’ father, Travers Robert Goff, and his performance is nothing short of magnetic, serving as the pulse of the film.

Some of the movie’s greatest pleasures are in young Pamela’s unknowing moments of inspiration. When her father – an infantile but deeply affectionate man – creates a game for his children out of something mundane, we see flashes of multiple characters from the Poppins universe. These small instances of the past spilling over into the future are delightfully Dickensian, making the trauma to come even more heartbreaking.

Although Hancock and his screenwriters have trouble visually transitioning from 1901 to 1960 and back again, it hardly matters once Walt and his colorful cast of underlings enters the picture. Hanks – not exactly a ringer for Mr. Disney – perfectly captures the childlike enthusiasm that Walt built an empire on. But more importantly, Hanks has genuine chemistry with Thompson, making their frequent spats a bountiful source of both laughs and drama.

When Travers enters her Disneyland Hotel room to find it overflowing with fruit baskets and stuffed animals, her silent exasperation at Walt’s excessiveness says more about the pic’s leads than some films say in 90 minutes. For anyone uncertain about the production of “Mary Poppins” being worthy of a feature length film, this scene alone should quell those fears. As portrayed here, Travers and Disney are textbook foils for one another, and watching actors of this caliber face off is a can’t-miss proposition.

The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches. Jason Schwartman and B.J. Novak play the fraternal songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman, Bradley Whitford plays screenwriter Don DaGradi, while Paul Giamatti is his usual wonderful self in a small but pivotal role as Ralph, Travers’ chauffeur. To have the luxury of Giamatti in a bit part speaks to the quality of the production. The prestige of the film is felt from the casting to the production design to the score (incorporating much of the Sherman brothers’ music), coming to a head in a breathtaking recreation of the 1964 premiere of “Mary Poppins.”

Cynics will likely take aim at the effortlessness of the film, chalking it up as another superficial, unnaturally feel-good product of the Walt Disney Company. And it’s certainly fair to second-guess the company’s overtly sunny portrayal of their founder. For example, Walt was known to be a heavy smoker but doesn’t light up once in the film – even though his habit is briefly addressed.

But the slickness of the production shouldn’t be a mark against it – especially since the pic goes out of its way to be substantive. “Saving Mr. Banks” is a deeply felt work, lovingly constructed and innately poignant. Will it shamelessly evoke warm and fuzzy feelings on the part of millions? Certainly, but it earns our goosebumps – and not simply by riding the coattails of nostalgia. Despite some awkward editing inherent in dueling storylines, it’s confident, palatable, and supremely entertaining.

Viewers raised on “Mary Poppins” will be unable to resist the warm embrace of “Saving Mr. Banks.” Disney die-hards will be even more susceptible to its charms as the entire project is packed with nods to Walt and his empire. And unlike many live-action Disney films, it adds up to so much more than its plot synopsis. There’s real depth in this joyous, aching, edifying trip into the hearts and minds of a pair of bona fide legends. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)
Release Date: December 13, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriter: Kelly Marcel
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images)