Beautifully ambitious and eagerly constructed, the success of Walt Disney Studios’ homage to its heritage is anchored magnificently by the crowning work of Emma Thompson‘s career. John Lee Hancock‘s Saving Mr. Banks is a tenderly affectionate tale featuring one of the year’s finest ensembles. Following a classic three act structure, when the film begins, it undoubtedly lifts off and hooks you almost immediately. Held back by a few poor choices in the editing room, there’s no denying the glamour, chemistry, and witchery that the film sets on you. Saving Mr. Banks is feverishly delightful.
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the film tells the story of P.L. Travers, the author of “Mary Poppins,” who in the early 1960’s met with Walt Disney and his creative team to decide whether to sign the rights of her beloved book to the magic studio. During the production, Travers reflects on her childhood and her relationship with her loving father, played by Colin Farrell, intertwining the magic of her beloved novel and the guilt of a troubled past.
As an unbridled, even at times downright vicious P.L. Travers, Thompson hasn’t pursued and thrived in a character of such complexities since James Ivory directed her to an Oscar in Howard’s End over twenty years ago. Travers’ mannerisms and moral guidelines are captured charmingly by the creative team. Thompson and director Hancock clearly worked closely together to nail the nuance of the central character’s focus. She buries herself in the time, and that of designer Daniel Orlandi‘s stunning costume work, to be the perfect entity of a fruitful tale. Playing the young Travers, Annie Rose Buckley is cute as a button and has some real juicy moments to sink her teeth into. Unfortunately, some directorial choices hinder any substantial connection between her and the audience to muster any real attention.
Marcel and Smith’s script is pure gold. There is such a dynamic and balance of charming and witty comedy tied in with heart wrenching and polarizing drama. Their assembling of the movie era, capturing subtle inequities of the business, and painting a magical story, will likely stand as one of the screenplays of the year. There is a heavy yet almost invisible component of layered despondency that the two writers choose to include that make the film truly sing.
Upon hearing the casting of Tom Hanks as the iconic Walt Disney, I have to admit my reservations were at an all-time high. Hanks, who has excelled in his career playing the everyday man, and floored the bulk of America with his performance in Captain Phillips this year, absolutely nails his role as the film executive tycoon. His choices of character beats, that don’t put down the material nor distract the audience from the story being told, is spot on nearly every moment. He maneuvers his way with his charisma but allows the animosity to fester in the viewer. I was thoroughly impressed.
Where the film missteps greatly is in the direction and options that John Lee Hancock chooses to execute throughout. “Banks” essentially tells two stories. One of the present time during the production of “Mary Poppins” and the other of P.L. Travers’ childhood. Hancock chooses to tell these two stories simultaneously, awkwardly transitioning from one time period to the other, and ripping us away from the story we’re desperately invested in. In many ways, his direction will be seen in the same reactionary split of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables. There will be some, likely many, that will have no problem with his bumbling alterations in certain scenes and there will be some, like myself, that sees that he’s still has a long way to go. Not gunning him down as a complete disaster, he has about three instances where the potential and vision are clearly realized. Hancock knows how to tug at the heartstrings. When a scene works, he accomplishes it with the utmost confidence and brilliant demeanor. A tightly paced and pivotal scene involving the song “A British Bank” showcases Hancock’s best varieties, and also that of co-star Colin Farrell.
For my dollar, everything connects and rises during the creation of “Let’s Go and Fly a Kite.” The cast comes together and unifies in such a harmonious fashion and Hancock chooses to utilize all the supporting players including that of the wonderful Bradley Whitford, the witty BJ Novak, and in his best turn yet, Jason Schwartzman. Hancock operates these three men in an ingenious method. Paul Giamatti is a compassionate force, especially in his exchanges with Thompson while Ruth Wilson makes me absolutely adore the ground in which she walks.
Besides the dynamite work of Thompson, I lived for the miraculous music of Academy Award nominated composer Thomas Newman. Brilliantly hinting at some of his other composed works, everything about the music in Saving Mr. Banks purely resonates because of Newman’s continued abilities to insert his own personality into his work. You can’t find another film musician this aware of his talents and continued drive to elevate his own material. It’s the Oscar slam dunk we’ve been waiting for in Original Score.
The production values are clearly there. Any scene where they’re discussing the actual film about to made is a dream. Movies like Hugo and The Artist, which pay homage to the filmmaking process, are clearly demonstrated and respected with Hancock’s keen eye during the 1961 stories. Production Design is a wonderful high, especially walking the compounds of Disneyland where Walt Disney takes P.L. Travers on a tour of his magical kingdom.
Saving Mr. Banks is respectful and endearing film. While misfires will surely be caught from even the most generic audience member, the performances of Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, and Jason Schwartzman are well worth the price of a movie ticket. In terms of Academy Award attention, the film is a no-brainer for lots of the major categories including Best Picture. Thompson could even be a viable threat to win Best Actress while Tom Hanks will fight for his first Supporting Actor award. The film is good for at least, half-dozen nominations easy and could go upward to double digits. No matter what, the film will move and hypnotize audiences everywhere. Saving Mr. Banks is enchanting.