Review by David H. Anthony (Audio above /read text below)
As we approach the holiday season, several cinematic blockbusters are making their debut. One of these is the widely touted Saving Mr. Banks starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, a version of the untold story behind the filming of Mary Poppins.
With Hanks as Walt Disney and Thompson as author P. L. Travers, director John Lee Hancock is attempting to capture a moment in time, the year 1961 when Disney and Travers, having communicated for two decades, are close to a deal granting Disney screen rights to Mary Poppins, a series equally dear to its London-based creator and the Midwestern-born mogul.
Saving Mr. Banks operates simultaneously on multiple levels. It is intended to shed light on the circumstances surrounding this testy collaboration by delving deeply into the psyches of each principal. In so doing, it transforms what viewers familiar with the Julie Andrews – Dick van Dyke feature saw as a light, bittersweet comedy into a tale with true life underpinnings of emotionally scarring melodrama. To do this it is necessary to reveal the person behind the sobriquet P. L. Travers by journeying back to the place where she and Disney intersect, the space of childhood. That requires a trip to the Australian outback where Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson as young Helen Goff’s parents take us into a landscape that helps solve the mystery.
Saving Mr. Banks is to be experienced, and for that reason I am not going to reveal any more of the plot than already outlined, as its strength lies in its storytelling. The period settings and recreations are generally consistent with their real life models. Thompson is impeccable as the fractious Travers and is a joy to watch throughout.
Hanks made me view doyen Disney with new eyes. Previously, I saw him as the producer of the racist Song of the South, and architect of the ecological denuding of the orange groves of the county that derived its name from citrus to fashion a “magic kingdom” with artificial shrubbery, animated action figures and totalitarian control.
What intrigued me about Saving Mr. Banks was the process of reconstructing some salient elements of the vexed, prickly relationship between two strong personalities, derived from mining well-documented, painstakingly preserved recorded evidence. I felt I had to put aside my intense feelings about these personages to focus on the drama, while striving to maintain a certain critical distance from what is, after all, still a Disney product, yet did not seem to typify the Disney version of life, even as it sought to portray its essence and aetiology. It does manage to offer one explanation of how these fundamentally different people with ostensibly opposing worldviews might have been able to come to a truce in order to collaborate on something that could transcend their individual peccadillos and offer hope for future generations.