John Lee Hancock | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG-13
Tom Hanks is Walt Disney and Emma Thompson is author P.L. Travers in “The Making of Mary Poppins: The Movie”. Disney has been desperate to turn Travers’ fictional nanny into a movie for years after he made a promise to his daughter; Travers has resisted, but now needs the money. She’s brought to LA to consult on the script, and proceeds to make life miserable for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songsmiths Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). At the same time, we see the story of a family in Australia from the eyes of a little girl Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), as they struggle with the whims of her father (Colin Farrell), a bank manager who’s a little too fond of the bottle. Guess what the connection is!
There’s fun to be had seeing the creation of a classic movie — I’m sure it’s not 100% the honest truth of how it went, but it is based on the tapes Travers insisted were made of the meetings, so it would seem the spirit is faithful. This isn’t a dry “making of” narrative, however, but a lively romp, as the two sides clash over jaunty tunes, characterisation, casting, and made-up words. Whitford brings understated gravitas to the man essentially tasked with giving Travers what she wants while also making a suitably Disney movie. Paul Giamatti turns up as Travers’ LA chauffeur, a role that starts out as bafflingly insignificant before gradually unfurling as one of the film’s most affecting elements.
Similarly, Hanks’ part seems to be little more than a cameo at first, but he steadily appears often enough to make it a supporting role. Reportedly he has perfectly captured many of Disney’s real traits and idiosyncrasies, and who are we to doubt the word of people who knew the man? His performance is not just a shallow, simple impersonation, but there’s not that much meat to Disney’s character arc either.
Instead, the film completely belongs to Emma Thompson. Travers is a complicated woman, a veneer of strictness masking deeper issues. Beneath the comedy of who will win in the battle over the film, there’s an affecting personal drama about the troubled upbringing that led to this human being, and how she’s still dealing with it so many decades later. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay holds back from being too explicit with regards to Travers’ internal life, but it’s all vividly brought to the screen by Thompson.
In the Australian segments, Colin Farrell’s accent has to be heard to be believed — his regular voice is completely lost inside the character. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the storyline, though it is fundamentally predictable and the intrusions are sometimes unwelcome, interrupting the flow of the main ’60s narrative. Would that story function without them? Is there a better way to structure the telling? I don’t think the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, but I don’t think it’s a “no” either.
Some will find the story lacking in dirt, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Disney. But it’s not whitewashed either, and do you really think the Disney Corporation would have allowed a movie to go ahead that depicts their founding father in a negative light? For that, I don’t think it’s as twee as it could have been — there’s definite conflict over what’s being done with Poppins, and, even with the film having turned out to be a solid-gold classic, we often find ourselves sympathising with Travers.
With plenty of humour and fun, a solid emotional heart, a first-rate performance from Thompson, and an array of excellent supporting turns too, Saving Mr. Banks is both a worthy tribute to a classic movie and an enjoyable one in its own right.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.