AFI Fest 2013: Saving Mr. Banks (★★★½)

Emma Thompson is a spoonful of sour in 'Saving Mr. Banks' as Travers (Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

saving mr banks posterA heartfelt endeavor by director John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks sweeps you up in its whirlwind of sincere emotion and rarely lets go. She might be the furthest thing from a Disney Princess, but biopic subject P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of Mary Poppins, is every bit as compelling and sympathetic. Travers, just like the fictitious Poppins, is a haughty, uppity British missus who is stubborn to a fault and socially haphazard. But beneath the brittle exterior is a scarred woman with secrets just waiting to pour out. It isn’t until she finds herself a fish out of water in hot and bustling Los Angeles — where Travers comes to supervise Walt Disney Studio’s live-action adaptation of her beloved children’s novel before signing the rights away — that her past hits her hard and she’s forced to confront the very truth she distorted for so long. A well-earned tearjerker, thanks in part to the charismatic yet kindhearted turn by Tom Hanks as the legendary Walt Disney, Saving Mr. Banks delivers every bit of magic the studio’s brand promises but doesn’t sugarcoat the tough, sometimes dark moments that are instrumental to understanding Travers and cherishing her story forever.

Without revealing too much of the many twists audiences will uncover along this biopic journey, I’ll just start off by saying that this film is essentially two separate story-lines that converge by way of Travers. The first, of course, takes place in 1961 with Travers traveling to Los Angeles and trying to wrest creative control from Walt and his team, who are in the midst of pre-production planning on Mary Poppins. The second goes back a long ways in time — 1906 to be exact — to a family etching out a living on the harsh plains of Australia. This family, the Goffs, seem happy and vivacious, living out their days surrounded by majestic horses and gorgeous wildlife. But not all is as flowery as you’d imagine. The head of the family, Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), is a successful banker but threatens to undo all his hard earnings thanks to his unfortunate addiction to alcohol. Travers also has a Peter Pan complex, never wanting to grow up and take responsibility for himself or his family. He’d rather play make-believe games with his young daughter Helen (Annie Rose Buckley), who he affectionately refers to as “Ginty.”

Hanks and Thompson are a wonderful pair as the subtly combative Disney and Travers.
Hanks and Thompson are a wonderful pair as the subtly combative Disney and Travers (Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

As the alcoholic yet loving Travers, Colin Farrell churns out one of his better performances in years. He may get a bit too “actor-y” at times, but I fault the slightly cheesy atmosphere that consumes this side-story, which is basically one extended flashback sequence. As Travers’ wife Margaret, Ruth Wilson continues to demonstrate a knack for playing emotionally wounded characters that seek a fulfilling existence. Having just come from the Wild West earlier in the year with The Lone Ranger, Wilson comfortably jumps back into the saddle of being a strong-willed woman in a time when men dominated the land as forcefully as their domestic life. Wilson is one of many new actors who are right on the precipice of finding one great role that will land them on Hollywood’s A-list. She’s that good.

How this 1906 plot thread affects author P.L. Travers will be left to the viewers to discover. I’d rather everyone experience the unfolding tale in theaters than accidentally reveal too much in this review, that way the emotions derived will feel organic, unfiltered by media hoopla. All you need to know is that the 1961 main storyline is where all the fun and nostalgia lies. Reliving those unforgettable songs, re-fashioned in a way that you feel like you’re discovering them again for the first time, is one of Saving Mr. Banks’ biggest highlights. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, especially, are wonderful as the Sherman Brothers, who composed and co-wrote all of Mary Poppins’ masterful songs. Their determination to illuminate P.L. Traver’s story in the most happy-go-lucky, jovial light imaginable both frustrates and charms Travers. This push-pull dynamic that Travers has with the Disney team working on Mary Poppins elicits a lot of laughs but never devolves into camp or bad satire of behind-the-scenes Hollywood debacles. Bradley Whitford is also superb as the very patient screenwriter of Mary Poppins. As Don DaGradi, Whitford is totally believable as a writer in Hollywood forced to stomach the egos of the rich and famous, who don’t appreciate his creative talent and just see him as another member of the labor force. Last of the supporting cast who impresses is Paul Giamatti, the chauffeur of Travers who takes her from her luxurious prison known as The Beverly Hills Hotel and drives her to the minefield that is Walt Disney Studios. Yes, this description is exactly how the uptight Travers feels daily during her visit in Los Angeles, but it’s Giamatti’s honesty and kindness that lessens the hardship Travers feels on this work-vacation. The sad reality is that all that she holds precious in this world may be snatched away forever by a large and powerful empire.

Colin Farrell is marvelous as Travers Guff, a man of great importance to 'Mary Poppins.'
Colin Farrell is marvelous as Travers Guff, a man of great importance to ‘Mary Poppins’ (Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

But it’s the compassionate and slightly avuncular performance of Hanks as Walt Disney that really demonstrates how much the studio respected Travers and the joy she brought to so many children. Making it his life’s mission to turn the pages of Mary Poppins into a living, breathing cinematic creation (his daughters were enthralled by Mary Poppins as children), Disney wants to do everything possible to make this business relationship with Travers work. Disney bends over backwards just to please the always less-than-pleased Travers, but it’s only when he discovers why she treasures her novel so much that he finally starts getting through to her. In a speech about the importance of memorializing those who deserved a better life than they were dealt with, via the powerful art of storytelling, Hanks brought me to tears. Not only is this moment his “Oscar scene,” but it pretty much captures why fiction is often more real and impactful than any “true story” could ever be. Subtle and never over-the-top as the larger-than-life Walt Disney, Hanks hasn’t been this good since 2000’s Cast Away.

And what is there to say about Emma Thompson other than she settles into this character so easily, it’s startling. Not to say that Thompson in real life is as stubborn and chilly as Travers was, but the way in which Thompson guides Travers’ emotional ups and downs throughout the film tells me Thompson has formed quite a personal connection with the woman she plays. That is almost more impressive than the fantastic performance itself. Thompson never makes a mockery of Travers or sells her as anything less than human despite all signs stating otherwise. There’s a vulnerability that Thompson allows herself to find, making Travers a wounded soul who, like all of us, just wants to be loved and understood. Expect Thompson to go head-to-head with several other actresses on Oscar night. She’s that spectacular in Saving Mr. Banks.

Emma Thompson is a spoonful of sour in 'Saving Mr. Banks' as Travers (Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)
Emma Thompson is a spoonful of sour in ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ as P.L. Travers (Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Lastly, I must commend John Lee Hancock for the best piece of directing he’s ever done. While the middle section could use some trimming down, as it gets a bit stuffy with those flashback inserts, Hancock treats his characters and wonderful script with the respect they deserve. Thomas Newman’s score is as sentimental as you’d expect a Disney film to sound, and I say that as a huge compliment. You’d ever want anything less from this studio, would you? John Schwartzman’s cinematography is purposeful and consistently favors character over location, which often times is the opposite when working on a production of this scale. Even when Saving Mr. Banks threatens to be too silly for its own good (those match-on-lyric time jumps were way too distracting and illogical for me), it always reels itself back on course. If more biopics were as entertaining and blissfully sweet as Saving Mr. Banks, the genre wouldn’t be seen as cold and impersonal as it currently does, just out to get awards attention. As it stands, Saving Mr. Banks both saves and reinvents the “biopic” film.

Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks had its U.S. premiere last night at the 2013 AFI Film Festival. Be sure to check it out in limited release on December 13th and nationwide December 20th! You can also read Editor-in-Chief Clayton Davis’ take on the film here.

Also, check out the trailer below…