Regardless of the creative liberties that writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith take with the story of the making of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, there’s something intimately familiar and hence moving about Saving Mr. Banks. It’s as if director John Lee Hancock wraps the script and narration with a cloth he’s used from your childhood blanket that you refused to give up despite the tatters and yawning holes that had secured their place on it over the years. It’s these long-forgotten threads from a warm past that the current dystopia’s burnt, which tie you into the movie’s premise. Ironically, that premise is based on a childhood that’s singed and haunted Pamela P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), shadows of that past which loom tall on her spinning of the children’s classic. With book royalties drying up, Travers faces the Hobson’s Choice of a parched existence or agree to the promising cloud of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) as he comes around, gently hankering for the rights to her book. Again. He’s been doing this in a loop for twenty years.
As Travers traverses to Los Angeles to meet Disney, it’s a frontal perky-happy assault on her senses, akin to a monk’s self-inflicted joy of sleeping on a hard rock rewarded with a water bed. Her beaming, optimistic chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti in a luminous, joyful act, a composite of all the drivers who deposited the real Ms. Travers from points A to B, B to C, and so on) adds to her irk. As Disney and Travers joust gently, one wringing out every drop of their famous charm and the other stolidly charm-proof, Hancock cuts to the writer’s past, spotlighting her adoration of her alcoholic father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), who encouraged his daughter to dream as much as he seemed to live in one, even as her parents’ marriage creaks at the seams of financial rupture. (Ruth Wilson plays the mother.) Every step, meanwhile that Disney and his team—co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), composers and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (played with verve and swing by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, their snappy act a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious lip to Travers’ stiff upper demeanor)—take, seem to be in the direction of misses.
As Disney begins to dig into the author’s past, he and his team realize how deeply intertwined Travers and Mary Poppins are. Despite an apparent attempt to add a subliminal halo to Walt Disney (it’s their company who produced the movie, after all), it’s this connection that makes the movie work. All of us, authors or not, published or not, have our own stories. When we pen them down or narrate them, we expect the reader and listener to understand what went behind them. The words imprinted on paper or throbbing from the glow of a screen are nerves that connect to something more profound. Is that immersion taking place? It depends on the reaction we expect from our audience. It’s a helpless go-no-go test, and when we fail to make others nod in understanding—an external validation of the conscious pattern of words inked by dyes of our subconscious and experiences—not with their heads but with their souls, something crumbles within. Emma Thompson, who’s made high art of brittle, acidic personas who shoot icicles with a glance, points you to pieces strewn around you, post that implosion, as she sees her version of her story, her life, Disneyfied. Every bristle is a wound from the past. Every obstinate digging in is but a desperate defense of shattered memories, a fort against the forces of commercial lenses and corruption. She makes Saving Mr. Banks a polished salve for our holed-up-at-home horrors and shards of personal stories that now lie at the bottom of a hopeless well.
Plus, there’s Tom Hanks, who can’t be anything but humane. (And that’s not a failing). Like James Stewart, he layers his act with such deep empathy, you can’t help but melt. The production team actually measured his self-grown mustache to ensure it matched Walt Disney’s. But the beating heart that you see onscreen measures to no one else’s but Tom Hanks’ own.
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Saving Mr. Banks is from my personal movie collection and rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for mildly intense sequences.
Saving Mr. Banks
Director John Lee Hancock Time 2h 5min
Writers Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Stars Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell
Genres Biography, Comedy, Drama