To see Saving Mr. Banks is to see Mary Poppins in a brand new light. It’s been, what, almost 50 years since Julie Andrews flew her enchanted umbrella into the night sky? And here, many years later, for the first time, we understand why that umbrella needed to bestow the power of flight.
It’s got something to do with Poppins’ creator’s father, but I shan’t get into that. I’ve grown weary of detailing plot points after the mess I made in my review of Inside Llewyn Davis. There’s no room for tardiness. Not that I was tardy before. But now I have to enforce, with every line I write, that no spoiler be mentioned in any way, shape or form. Reset the clock.
Saving Mr. Banks chronicles a very specific time in the making of Mary Poppins. At the movie’s start, we are introduced to Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson), whose numerous books on the Poppins character find their way to the Disney household, and it just so happens that Disney’s two girls absolutely adore the fiction. For 20 years he’s been trying to acquire the rights to turn the novels into a movie, and for 20 years Pamela has told him to shove his idea. What pushes Disney to keep trying is a promise he made to his children that he will, no matter what, get the movie made.
Emma Thompson is the perfect choice to play Pamela Travers. She imbues the woman with so many loathsome qualities that we feel like cutting off our own arm just so we’ll have something to throw at her. But she’s also very sympathetic, and it’s a fine line to tread, between what’s irritating and what’s loveable. She is a veteran of the emotion play. I recall her performance in Love Actually, where she played a wife desperate for her husband’s love and affection. It is not easy to play such a role, to come off as the bad person and really be struggling inside.
In Saving Mr. Banks, Pamela struggles a lot. The entire film is about her struggles. She struggles with her past. She struggles with her father. She struggles with Disney. She struggles with the production crew. She even struggles with a Mickey Mouse toy. And Thompson hits the right notes with her emotions. She comes off not as a bad person, but as a fragile lady trying desperately to protect childhood secrets that’ve been haunting her for decades. Again, what these secrets are I shall not reveal, or rather I feel like I shouldn’t reveal. I shall leave them up to you, good readers, to discover.
But Thompson isn’t the only beam of light in this movie. Yes, the story is hers to tell, but all around her her supporting cast mates deliver equally stunning performances. Tom Hanks is a showman. He absorbs the levity from the people around him and converts it into infectious joy. As Walt Disney, he is a charming man. At times short-tongued, but always charming. He deals with Pamela’s absurdity with about as much tolerance as humanly possibly, and even though he has a promise to upkeep, we figure there must be more pressing him to befriend such an unbefriendable woman.
The movie is directed by John Lee Hancock, whose small filmography has gone unchecked by me over the years. Here, he displays strong confidence with two megatrons of film. The story never gets out of hand, nor does it ever fall too deep into the pit of sentimentality. The sappy bits are there to let us know that they are meant to be sappy. Nothing more. These bits usually arrive in flashback, as Pamela recalls her childhood. There are extended scenes involving her young self and her father, played by a discernible Colin Farrell. Yes, sometimes they take away from the immediacy of 1961’s present, but they are never too distracting. The story told in Saving Mr. Banks is the story every kid and adult has grown to love in Mary Poppins.
Best Moment | A shot at the end of a woman crying. I won’t say who, where, or why. All I can say is that it perfectly sums up the movie.
Worst Moment | Nope.