By Melissa Agar
Saving Mr. Banks (Walt Disney Pictures, 2013) – Director: John Lee Hancock. Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. Cast: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Rachel Griffiths, Jason Schewartzman, & B.J. Novak. Color, 125 minutes.
I love behind-the-scenes tales. I’m one of those people who gobbles up books or documentaries that offer glimpses into the creative processes that have led to great films or shows or albums. As someone who dabbles in the creative arts myself, I am fascinated to see how the process works. The prospect, then, of a film telling the tale of the creation of one of the most beloved films in the Disney canon drew me like a fly to honey so much so that when my local multiplex failed to give Saving Mr. Banks a screen this holiday season, I decided to drive nearly an hour away to see it. Unfortunately, I ended up making the trip for a film that failed to engage me on the level I’d hoped.
Saving Mr. Banks is two films in one. On one level, it tells the story of how Walt Disney (Hanks) finally struck a deal with prickly author PL Travers (Thompson) to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. Disney spent 20 years trying to woo Travers into signing over the rights to her magical nanny. It is only when money has grown tight that Travers is convinced to meet with Disney and see what he has in store for her beloved character. She sits in on writing sessions with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (Novak and Schwartzman respectively), fighting the trio every turn on issues both significant, like her insistence that the film not be animated, and trivial, like the name of Mrs. Banks.
Interspersed throughout this story are flashbacks to Travers’s childhood in Australia. As Disney learns, Travers grew up as Helen “Ginty” Goff (Buckley). Her father, Travers Goff (Farrell), is a bank manager whose alcoholism stands in the way of any sort of career success but whose playful spirit makes him a hero to his young daughter. As Ginty begins to understand the severity of her father’s problems, his health falters, forcing her mother (Wilson) to send for her sister, the “dreaded” Aunt Ellie (Griffiths) who shows up with a giant carpetbag and immediately begins putting the Goff house back in order.
It is the dual nature of the film’s narrative that ultimately makes it less than satisfying. Had the film stayed with the Disney/Travers standoff, it would have worked much better. This part of the film is tremendously engaging and entertaining, largely thanks to Hanks and Thompson who deliver fine performances. Hanks uses his natural charm to bring the gregarious Disney to life. He oozes charm from every pore as he pulls out the stops to win Travers over, not realizing that that charm is what is pushing her even further away. Disney is not a man used to failing and yet he remains largely unflappable as Travers digs her heels in at every turn. Hanks brings a great sense of humanity to the role; a monologue he has toward film’s end about his childhood in Missouri could land him an Oscar nomination and was a moment where I felt truly drawn into the film on an emotional level.
Thompson is a perfect foil for Hanks’s charm. Her Travers is prickly and disapproving and would easily be completely unlikable in the hands of a lesser actor. Thompson, though, finds the loneliness that lies beneath the disapproval, and that desperate loneliness and sadness shines through her eyes. She is a woman who has built a wall around her heart and isn’t exactly sure how to overcome it so she pushes away those who may try to befriend her. She insists on formalities – she is horrified when not addressed formally as “Mrs. Travers.” She is initially dismissive of Ralph (Giamatti), the kindly driver who is assigned to her by Disney Studios, disdaining his pleasantries and attempts at small talk. Ralph, though, seems to sense the loneliness and persists, becoming perhaps the closest thing the writer has had to a friend in quite some time. Thompson makes this all work and creates a nuanced, complicated character, leaving the audience not sure who to root for as Disney tries to win her over.
The problem with Saving Mr. Banks lies in the Australian flashbacks. They break up the narrative flow of the film, stranding us at times in the outback with, to be honest, lesser actors and characters. Farrell tries his hardest to make Travers Goff charming, but he just comes across as childish and reckless. It doesn’t help that he’s stranded with little to work with. The Australian sequences are often melodramatic (the scene where little Ginty is confronted by her mother for giving Travers alcohol had my eyes rolling harder than dice at an Atlantic City casino) and predictable. You can pretty much tell the fate of the Goff family within minutes, but we get these scenes spread out over two hours leading us to the inevitable conclusion, all time taken away from the Disney/Travers sequences that are hugely entertaining and engaging. I understand the need for the Australian sequences in terms of establishing why Travers is the way she is and why she’s so protective of her work, but perhaps a prologue scene at the beginning would have worked better and allowed us to become fully immersed in the battle for Mary Poppins rather than being mired in an Australian soap opera that left me groaning with disappointment every time one of the flashback sequences kicked in.
I really wanted to like this film. Thompson is one of my absolute favorite actors, and she is splendid here and surrounded by winning support at every turn. The problem is that the film shoots itself in the foot by trying to be too much and not trusting the audience to read between the lines a little more to infer Travers’s motivation. There is an A film here, but it’s spliced together with a bunch of C- flashback sequences, making Saving Mr. Banks overall a B. Sometimes too much is too much.