It was going to take a remarkable mess-up to prevent Saving Mister Banks being regarded as a perfect double bill movie to sit alongside the peerless Disney classic, Mary Poppins. As it turns out though, John Lee Hancock’s film, on the surface about Walt Disney’s attempts to persuade E L Travers to give him the film rights to make Mary Poppins in the first place, is a wonderful piece of work in its own right.
It goes about telling the story in two different time periods. We thus spend a good chunk of the film at the start of the 20th century, as we get a glimpse into Travers’ childhood, particularly the complicated relationship she had with her father (Colin Farrell) and mother (Ruth Wilson). That’s then paired with the 1960s story of the grown-up Travers, in the guise of the outstanding Emma Thompson, as the film explores how Disney, played by Tom Hanks, brought to an end his 20 year quest to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen.
Boasting a PG rating and with the rough edges of at least one of the lead characters clearly knocked off – 30 pages of any Walt Disney biography of your choice will paint a differing picture of him – Saving Mr Banks has a series of issues that, in other cases, would knock a film stone dead. It’s overtly manipulative. It’s not afraid to add more than – yes! – a spoonful of sugar in places. And at first, the conventional structure makes the modern day Travers’ tale far more interesting than the exploration of her childhood.
And yet as legitimate as those criticisms are, by the time the credits roll, they simply don’t seem to matter anywhere near as much as they otherwise might. Because there’s a real heart, charm and human quality to Saving Mr Banks. It’s littered with humour and character, and boasts a collection of quite brilliant performances.
Emma Thompson will walk away with the bulk of the plaudits, and rightly so. There’s a believability and heartbreaking quality to her performance, which measures pretty much perfectly the requisite amounts of humour and emotion. Tom Hanks feels effortless as Walt Disney, and there’s nothing here to damage his reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest leading men.
But look at the supporting performances too. After spending quality time with Jason Schwartzman and B J Novak as the songwriting Sherman brothers, you’ll practically be salivating for a film that focuses purely on them. The documentary The Boys charted the fractured relationship between the pair if you’re looking for further viewing, but here, the immovable force they find themselves up against is the uncompromising Travers. Their sparring moments mark amongst the highlights of the film.
Elsewhere, Paul Giamatti has what at first feels like a fairly narrow role, that is fleshed out and enhanced by another excellent turn from the actor. And Ruth Wilson shouldn’t fly under people’s radars either. She was strong in The Lone Ranger earlier in the year, and she’s superb here. A best supporting actress Oscar nomination should not be out of the question.
It’s the performances of Wilson and Colin Farrell that are pivotal to the darker turns that Saving Mr Banks occasionally takes. Appreciating that aforementioned PG certificate, and appreciating the edges knocked off in some quarters, there’s no shirking the darkness of Travers’ childhood, and it proves crucial in tying the two distinct parts of the film together.
It’s a real triumph, this. With a score that gleefully makes use of the Sherman brothers’ music – you toes will be tapping within five minutes – John Lee Hancock has found and put across the darker drama at the heart of the creation of such a beloved classic. And whilst the framing of it through the prism of Travers’ and Disney’s relationship does leave parts of the story less served, it does focus the narrative into a manageable, wonderful two hours in a cinema. There are holes to picked in Saving Mr Banks, certainly. But you’re far more likely to be applauding than complaining when the film comes to a close.
Oh, one last thing: leave before the end credits have rolled at your peril. Saving Mr Banks has the best mid-credits sequence we’ve seen in years. It’s goosebump-inducingly good.
Saving Mr Banks is out in UK cinemas on the 29th November.
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