‘Saving Mr. Banks’: When Walt met Pam

December 11, 2013

Mr.banks photo

I was surprised at how emotional my reaction was in the first scenes in “Saving Mr. Banks” between Emma Thompson (as author Pamela L. Travers) and Tom Hanks, who plays Walt Disney.

It’s not just that Hanks finds the Kansas City boy still very much alive in Disney, or that he understands just how much a part of Disney that avuncular persona really was, and how much of it was the character he played on TV.

No, it’s that Hanks IS Disney in these scenes, as we’ve never seen him before. But alive nonetheless, a human being with the imagination to launch a million childhoods. Disney was such an everpresent figure in the childhoods of baby boomers that it’s hard to remember he’s been dead almost 50 years.

Hanks brings him to life and gives him depth, wit and, above all, feeling in John Lee Hancock’s film. He’s a formidable character and yet this is a story about how he almost met his match in Travers, as he tried to convince her to sell him the rights to make her book, “Mary Poppins,” into a movie.

Travers’ personality, as imagined in the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is persnickety as a finishing-school matron. It seems extreme until, as the final credits roll, you hear audiotape recordings – a form of documentation Travers insisted on – of the real Travers’ meetings with the writing team working on the “Mary Poppins” script. Thompson’s portrait isn’t that much of an exaggeration.

The script finds the cash-poor Travers forced to seriously consider Disney’s rich offer for her books. She must go to Hollywood to sign the final contract, but intends to wring all sorts of concessions from Disney about what the movie can and can’t be.

The bifurcated script, however, keeps taking us back to the Australian outback just after the start of the 20th century. There, the young Travers (whose real name was Helen Goff) lives with her mother, siblings and – most definingly – her lovable wastrel of a father (Colin Farrell), Travers Goff. Dad lets his whimsy get in the way of his dull banking work and so keeps his family living on economic tenterhooks.

There’s a connection between Travers’ possessiveness about her book and her memories of her childhood and this film wrings them out thoroughly. Ultimately, the tale of the adoring and imaginative father feels contrived, less a truth than a trope.

Yet Hancock achieves the emotional payoff in the end. There’s a lot of psychologizing, a lot of end-of-therapy-style breakthroughs, in the days before that sort of thing was popular.

Is it schmaltzy? To be sure. But does it work? My rule about feeling manipulated has to do with just how aware I am of the manipulation and how much I mind it. Here, I didn’t mind it at all.

This has been a year rich in acting performances and “Saving Mr. Banks” is no exception, with Thompson and Hanks both playing to their strengths. While some of the comedy stylings during the work sessions (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman play screenwriter Don DaGradi and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman) seem too shticky, Thompson’s acerbic tsk-tsks always carry a sting, a whipcrack of disapproval. I also appreciated the understated work by Paul Giamatti, as the driver who transports Travers each day.

“Saving Mr. Banks” will leave you wet-eyed and appreciative for it. It’s a personal story that proves to be more than a little universal.

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