Review by Pete Mason
“Intellectual Property Rights to a 1961 Disney Film” sounds like riveting material for the big screen, right? OK, well, not exactly. But when you frame it as “How Mary Poppins Got Her Groove Back,” well then you’ve got something. Throw in America’s Sweetheart Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney, one of the most iconic names in Hollywood history, and well, then you’ve really got something…
“Saving Mr. Banks,” the tale of how P.L. Travers’ book “Mary Poppins” came to life in cinema follows an ordeal that cost Disney 20 years of time just to get Travers to fly to Los Angeles to negotiate the rights to the book and another three to write an agreed-upon script and produce the film. But ultimately the movie is far more than a simple journey into the legal nature of film production.
Director John Lee Hitchcock has worked with Disney Studios on “The Alamo” and “The Blind Side,” this time combining two stories into one film: 1961 Los Angeles mixed with a turn of the century back-story set in Australia. The latter explains the former and makes a film on IP rights that much more interesting, providing a framework for Travers’ reluctance towards making her book into a movie. The rights issue is the underlying theme of the film, but does not come off as legalistic or boring while the details are hashed out. The true story as to why Travers is so resistant to songs, animation, casting choices and wardrobe selections is revealed in an interspliced story set in the Outback that another could have easily ignored in turning this book into a movie.
Travers (played by Emma Thompson) is a bitter pill, at times repugnant and bitchy, and consistently difficult and spiteful of Disney and his staff of writers, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman). Travers is portrayed as the worst person to write “Mary Poppins” and insufferable to work with, but Thompson makes you keep paying attention to her, waiting for that moment when her rough exterior is pierced. And eventually, you fall for her as you wait for her to come around, and although it takes the full two hours of the film, it is worth it.
Hanks eventually looks like Walt Disney, but not nearly as aged as the face of the Disney empire was at that time. That voice though… Tom Hanks, in all his acting skill didn’t master the voice, because he sounds, in the entire film, like Tom Hanks with a slight Missouri accent. It’s not even close to the original. It takes a while to forget it is Tom Hanks and wait for Walt to show up. Eventually, you can see Walt, but you never hear him. It’s every character where Hanks uses his real voice, just with a light twang. An unknown actor could have fallen into the role and burst off the screen as Disney, but Hanks…
Schwartzman, Novak and Whitford take the brunt of Travers’ scorn but produce the songs and film that generations have come to love, working alongside her notes and needed approval for the minutia of the film. As the songs develop, you will hum along and rock in your seat, just as Travers eventually does when she hears “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” The result is the finished film becomes fresh all over again for fans, commanding a repeat viewing of Disney’s original “Mary Poppins” film.
Seeing what it takes to bring a Disney film to life – perhaps THE Disney film – is a treat, and there is hardly has a dull moment, despite the expected lack of action in a writer’s room. “Saving Mr. Banks” gives more depth and another layer of history to Mary Poppins, while peeling away a layer of mystery behind the creation of a Disney classic.