Saving Mr. Banks Review: A Tale of Redemption
Saving Mr. Banks was not at all the film I expected it to be. Based on what I knew about the film and the story of Mary Poppins, my expectation was for a feel good film that would replicate the same warm fuzzies as a big hug or warm apple cider at Christmastime. I did not expect a story of redemption tangled in tragedy and hopelessness, nor did I expect to have the themes of the film speak to me in such a powerful way. No, Saving Mr. Banks passed on the sugar and surprised me by being one of the boldest and most poignant films I’ve seen this year.
P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is a very particular woman who has been placed in a difficult situation. The esteemed author of Mary Poppins, Mrs. Travers is forced to face the reality that her book is no longer lucrative, and money is quickly running out. She’s not completely out of options, however, as one Mr. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has offered to adapt her book for the big screen, should she be so willing to hand over the rights. Ever wary of Disney and his “cartoons”, Travers only agrees to meet with the filmmaker out of necessity, but only on the grounds that she has complete control over the project and its creation. It’s because of this that she proves to be difficult to the point of infuriating when working with Disney and his writers on the film, refusing to sign off on virtually every idea the creative team dreams up and acting as a constant detractor to the project as a whole. That is, until Disney and his team finally begin to understand who Mary Poppins really is and what she means to Travers’ life.
While it does make for some great comedic bits, Travers isn’t all bad all the time and the film does an amazing job of showing us why she is so hellbent on preserving her vision of Mary Poppins. Using flashbacks, Saving Mr. Banks gives us a glimpse of Travers’ life as a child and the tragedy that ultimately gives rise to Poppins’ character and the hope that she personifies.
Initially, Travers comes across as an arrogant woman who angers her co-workers with her staunch ideas and refuses to back down even over the slightest of complaints, but as the film progresses it increasingly becomes clear why. Mary Poppins is not merely some whimsical character written for children, and the Banks family is not just a fictional set of characters. They’re family to Travers, and she is so deeply connected to the story that it largely defines her as a person. It’s because of this that, in her mind, the story is sacrosanct and not to be compromised in any way, shape, or form. While it’s often tastefully twisted into punch lines, her staunch refusal to relinquish control over Mary Poppins even in the slightest bit is inspiring, and a testament to the connection a creator has with their masterpiece.
It’s thanks to these flashbacks during that we also learn how the story of Mary Poppins served as a form of redemption for one of the key people in Travers’ family. By extension, this idea also speaks to the healing power of storytelling and what a great writer can do to alter reality in an effort to mend the wounds inflicted on us in real life. It’s toward the end that Travers realizes what her story has done and can do for the people that read it, and this realization is what ultimately leads her to signing over the rights in order for the film to be made.
While it doesn’t rely too heavily on Mary Poppins references to structure its story, seeing the 1964 Disney classic will certainly supplement your appreciation for the movie and everything involved in getting it off the ground. There are many references to the film throughout Mr. Banks, and much of the iconic music used in the film is conceived during the planning stages of the adaptation. These references are mostly understood and don’t have as much bearing on the story of Mr. Banks as a whole, but it will most likely deepen your appreciation of the story and underlying themes of Mary Poppins.
Both Thompson and Hanks have a wonderful dynamic on screen, even in their polar opposition. Thompson plays a cold and controlling Travers with bravado, while Hanks is a warm and personable Walt Disney who is willing to accommodate such a difficult woman in order to keep a promise made to his daughters twenty years ago to adapt Mary Poppins for the big screen. Some of the best moments in the film are the interactions between the two and seeing how their vastly different personalities play off of one another, particularly toward the end when Walt learns the importance of Mr. Banks’ character and uses this discovery to connect with Travers and convince her to allow him to adapt Mary Poppins’ story.
The supporting cast is strong as well, with Paul Giamatti as Travers’ ever-optimistic driver, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman, and Colin Farrell as Travers’ deeply troubled father. While some of these characters never get the same attention as both Walt and Travers, they still feel distinct and individual in their own ways, adding another layer to an already solid dynamic seen between the characters on screen.
While a variety of camera angles and inventive shots were used to great effect throughout the film’s entirety, a great deal of credit also needs to be given to the costume and set design that helped the film truly feel its 1960’s setting, particularly during the sequence where Disney and Travers take to Disneyland with a massive crowd of extras dressed to suit the setting. Travers’ character is also seen going through a wide variety of outfits that often indicate her evolution as a person and how she warms up to the world around her over time. It’s hard to capture these subtle nuances using sets and costumes, but the teams responsible for this on Saving Mr. Banks did so in spades.
Like all movies, Saving Mr. Banks is not without its faults. Some scenes feel a bit unnecessary, P.L.’s suddenly acquired optimism and relationship with her car driver feel a bit forced at times, and the way the flashbacks are integrated into the film feel a bit jarring and initially take some getting used to.
But it’s easy to overlook these missteps when one takes into consideration how powerful the story is and how well it is delivered. Your feelings toward Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers are manipulated significantly throughout the film’s entirety, ranging from amusement to heartbreaking relation with Travers and her difficult past. It’s once we see and learn the realities that influenced the story of Mary Poppins that we rejoice in Travers’ change of heart and how she uses the flying nanny to let go of the pain that has tormented her for so many years.
On paper, Saving Mr. Banks appears to be a feel good story about a woman who used her fiction to alter reality in favor of a happy ending she never saw in real life. But after viewing the film and considering its themes and message, I’ve come to the conclusion that Saving Mr. Banks’ story is, in fact, about so much more. It’s a story of redemption, of hope, of letting go. It’s a beautiful depiction of the powers of storytelling and what it can do to save us from our harsh realities. Really, Saving Mr. Banks is the story of how great art can be used to help us save ourselves.