As far as winning combinations go, Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) playing Walt Disney is as solid as they get. It’s a disappointment, then, that this inspired bit of casting is lost in a featherweight flick that shouldn’t even be about Disney.
Indeed, Saving Mr. Banks purports to examine the making of the film Mary Poppins: Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures) is in dire need of money, but is suspicious of what Disney might do to her character with his proposed film adaptation.
To try to woo her over, Disney brings Travers to his studio in Los Angeles to show her his ideas and his script, unintentionally triggering an inelegant series of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia, with her loving but alcoholic and sickly father (Colin Farrell, Dead Man Down) that might or might not have been the basis for her Mary Poppins.
The movie stumbles from the onset by being far too nostalgic for Disney’s musical. Mary Poppins is not so seminal that it requires a constant stream of references and knowing winks, yet Mr. Banks riddles itself with these distracting nods.
But the biggest problem with the story lies in Hanks’ unimpeachable, deifying take on Disney. How, the movie posits, could anyone hate this savior of undersexed women suffering from everlasting daddy issues?
All the Disney myth-building, however, comes at the expense of Thompson’s Travers. As her character frequently bemoans, Travers has no real agency within the movie. There’s never a sense that she might not give Disney the rights to her book.
Instead, the moment when she does decide to let Disney make his movie is framed as the redemptive catharsis the whole film has been leading to — that she, a grotesque caricature of a strong, independent woman, has been waiting this whole runtime for Disney’s charm and earnest humanity to solve all her deep-rooted daddy issues and go ahead with this definitely-a-good-thing business proposition.
The movie is never actually on Travers’ side. The little girl of the flashbacks is ancillary, by nature, to Farrell’s drunken father routine, while the British bridge troll of the story’s present is always the butt of the joke.
Her snippiness and stern propriety are shot from the external point of view, so everything that flies out of her seems too mean, while all the eye-rolling and in-jokes made at her expense seem perfectly appropriate.
This unbalanced portrait of a genuinely talented woman isn’t just the fault of first-time writer Kelly Marcel but also the director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side). Given the choice between playing a scene emotionally straight and adding a dollop of Disney-esque schmaltz, Hancock goes for the latter without fail.
The overbearing soundtrack gets slathered all over the place, mixing rearrangements of the Mary Poppins soundtrack with baffling orchestral nonsense over moments that would have gone better unmolested.
Hancock never lets his actors let up on their specific caricatures. Hanks is nothing but the playful, perceptive Disney the film is trying to hustle onto us, while Thompson is never not a frowning hag — at least until Disney gets to fix her.
A movie can work with such overbearing sentiment and bias, but Saving Mr. Banks positioned itself as the real behind-the-scenes story of Mary Poppins when it’s actually just a nonmusical repackaging of Walt Disney’s film.
It’s a manipulative experience from start to finish that not only tells a childishly simple story but also manages to reduce a tremendous author to a snarky daddy’s girl in dire need of a man’s intervention.
To see Warren Zhang's "Fact-checking Saving Mr. Banks," click here.