Walt Disney, the hugely successful businessman who helped create the immense Disney empire. I grew up watching animated Disney movies with my sister, family and friends having been introduced to the older Disney genres at the same time so for me the 1950s and 1960s were the empire at its ultimate best. Think of all the backstories, all the explanations, all the little tidbits explaining how all those movies and TV shows came to be, like the classic 1964 film Mary Poppins, which we see in 2013's Saving Mr. Banks.
Struggling financially to make ends meet in her London home, Pamela 'P.L.' Travers (Emma Thompson) has agreed to do something she's avoided for 20 years. She agrees to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Los Angeles to discuss selling the rights to her hugely successful children's book, Mary Poppins. While she could clearly use the money, Travers also is less than psyched to sell the rights to her most famous book, the one that put her on the literary map. The book, the story and the characters, they all mean too much to her, and she worries Walt Disney will "Disney-fy" it, adding animation and songs and a far-more lighthearted tone than her original book intends. Having long wanted to turn Travers' book into a feature film (having promised his daughters he would do so), Disney is going to put the full-court press on the author to get the job done. Who's going to buckle first?
There's something to be said for movies like this. Blend a well-written, entertaining story with some fun, memorable characters, throw some style in there for good measure, and let things fall where they may. It isn't trying to rewrite Film, instead it is content to tell that story and hopefully resonate that way. Director John Lee Hancock is a specialist at that type of film, and I mean that in the most positive sense. In terms of what it is trying to accomplish, it reminded me of two other Hancock films, The Rookie and The Blind Side. It certainly helps if you're a fan of the original Mary Poppins to get some of the jokes, the lines, the background, but it's not essential. The story is a good blend of drama and comedy, and don't be fooled. Hancock's film is most definitely trying to pull at your heart strings. Oh, and it does, and does it well.
The movie's success rides on the shoulders of stars Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. I don't know if either will get any Academy Award nominations, but these are two very human, very layered performances. Over the last couple weeks, 'Banks' has taken some public grief because of its portrayal of Disney -- not too many flaws in view, read more HERE -- as that flawless, pretty perfect hero, but at no point was this a huge, digging character study of a movie. This is about two very stubborn folks who are willing to stick to their guns, Thompson's Travers and Hanks' Disney. Their scenes together crackle, Thompson perfectly cast as the icy, brutally honest author who wants to protect her own story, Hanks breathing life into a likable, charming and even then iconic Walt Disney. Thompson makes it hard at times, but you like both these characters. You're rooting for both of them.
So while I point out this isn't a movie too interested in the characters' real-life flaws, it also doesn't gloss over too much. While much of the story is spent in Los Angeles in the 1960s, a fairly large amount of time is spent in a flashback in the early 1900s in Australia, watching a young Travers grow up, seeing what becomes her inspiration for Mary Poppins and its characters. We see young Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), her well-meaning father (Colin Farrell) with a drinking problem, her mother (Ruth Wilson), overwhelmed by her husband's drinking problems that affect all aspects of their life, and ultimately, Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), Travers' inspiration for Mary Poppins. Of the two halves of the story, I enjoyed the 1960s Disney portion more, but both hold their merits. It's never overdone even if its obvious where the 1900s Australia part is going. I was just more interested in how Mary Poppins came together, a battle of wills between Travers and Disney.
There isn't a weak performance in the movie. The supporting parts are filled out with some big names too, parts that are meant to flesh out the lead roles. My favorite part went to Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Pamela's appointed driver to chauffeur her around L.A. as she decides whether to sell the rights to her book. An eternal optimist with a bright outlook on life, even Travers' almost non-stop negativity can't weight on him. Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as Don DeGradi, the screenplay writer, and Robert and Richard Sherman, Mary Poppins' writers of the music and lyrics. The trio's scenes with Thompson are pretty perfect, three talented individuals seemingly working against a brick wall. It's also fun to see these rehearsal scenes coming together, seeing a handful of iconic scenes from Mary Poppins coming together, including some of its best and most memorable musical numbers. Also worth mentioning are Kathy Baker and Melanie Paxson as two secretaries working with Disney and Travers, almost as middlemen.
An underrated aspect of 'Banks' is the style. Immediately I felt transported back to Los Angeles in the 1960s. The look of the film is perfect from seeing Disneyland in the 1960s to the big boats that were once called cars to everyone wearing immaculate suits to work. The early 1960s were the Disney empire at a high point -- Swiss Family Robinson, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword and the Stone among many others -- and on a simple level, it's just fun to get an inside look at the making of one of Disney's most iconic films. Another positive is Thomas Newman's score, good without being overbearing. Mostly though, it's the moments that work. Through all the laughs, the emotional, dramatic moments work the best, especially as Thompson's Travers opens up a little, 'Let's Go Fly a Kite' providing a great moment.
It's a really good movie. That's it. Go see for yourself.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013): *** 1/2 /****