If you grew up watching The Wonderful World of Color, you’ll instantly recognize your kindly old Uncle Walt as you watch Saving Mr. Banks. Tom Hanks nails Disney’s warm and fuzzy persona with uncanny accuracy in this story of how he managed to convince author P. L. Travers to let him bring Mary Poppins to life on the big screen.
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
Ironically, back in 2012, a fake movie poster hit the Internet, purportedly for a biopic entitled Walt that would star Ryan Gosling as the legend himself. Disney had never before been portrayed on the big screen, yet just one year later we see Hanks breathing life into one of American media’s most beloved figures.
Hanks also manages to show Disney’s harder side. We get a glimpse of a consummate businessman who’s willing to do what it takes to accomplish his aim. In this case. that aim is to convince Travers to sell him the rights to her popular books about the magical nanny who flies via umbrella power. As a dad, he promised daughters Sharon and Diane that he’d make a movie out of Mary Poppins, which was one of their favorite stories. The movie chronicles the process of making that promise come true.
Daddy Issues for Emma Thompson
Travers, as played by Emma Thompson, is a prissy, proper British woman with more than a few eccentricities. For example, she doesn’t want the color red in the movie because she’s “simply gone off the color.” She also cringes at the idea of trademark Disney touches like animated dancing penguins, and Disney’s attempt to delight her by filling her hotel room with stuffed animals falls flat, to say the least.
If you’ve seen Mary Poppins, you know that Mr. Banks is the workaholic father in the movie. The story is as much about him as it is about his precocious children, Jane and Michael, and the magical nanny who tames them. The kids are in the midst of developing some major daddy issues until Banks learns what’s really important, even at the expense of losing his job. We learn that Travers has issues of her own. Since real life isn’t a Disney movie. There’s no simple solution that ends in an ensemble song, with everyone living happily ever after. It does, however, eventually serve as common ground between Travers and Disney.
We learn about that childhood in flashbacks that show the author’s life as a little girl in Australia, dealing with an alcoholic father, played by Colin Farrell. In a not so subtle connection, he’s a bank officer just like Mr. Banks in the Mary Poppins books. The flashbacks are a little long, but they set up a necessary part of the story.
The movie has its humorous moments, many of which come in the butting of heads over elements of Mary Poppins that would later become classics. Travers hates the idea of Dick Van Dyke playing Bert and the inclusion of animated sequences. The Sherman brothers, played by B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, are widely hailed as musical geniuses, yet Travers was less than thrilled with their ideas for scoring her work.
Mary Poppins came out in 1964, and Disney was dead just two years later, having succumbed to lung cancer. This is a Disney movie, so of course we don’t blatantly see him chain smoking. However, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t gloss over this propensity either. It simply gives subtle clues. Indeed, the movie is more honest than you might expect. It shows Disney’s manipulative side as well as his personable public persona, and its portrayal of the story behind the movie blockbuster feels very genuine.
There’s still a darker side that we don’t get to see here. Travers was very unhappy with the final product, despite the fact that it won five Academy Awards. She made sure that Disney could never use any of her characters again. Instead of delving into that end result, the movie sticks to its title. It’s more about seeing Travers gain some peace, or at least acceptance, of her past and find enough common ground with Disney to give Mary Poppins a green light.
While Hanks and Thompson are the big names, this movie has one other “star”: Disneyland itself. It’s a visual treat for Disney fans who will love the sight of the theme park as it appeared in 1961. The movie makers took great pains to ensure that watching the Disneyland scenes in Saving Mr. Banks would be like stepped backwards through a time portal.
Overall, Saving Mr. Banks is a worthwhile outing for Disney fans, even though it glosses over the more unpleasant aspects of the Mary Poppins movie negotiations and Travers’ opinion of the final product. Baby boomers in particular will enjoy going behind the scenes of a movie they enjoyed in their youth, and their children and grandchildren, who never got to see Walt Disney in the flesh, will get a worthy substitute in Hanks’ portrayal.