Saving Mr. Banks: Making the magic of Mary Poppins

by Mark Burger

The making of the classic family film Mary Poppins (1964) is recounted, in appropriately “Disney-esque” fashion, in Saving Mr.

Banks, a cheerful and charming valentine to vintage Hollywood. Did it happen precisely as depicted here? Probably not, but why let full adherence to the truth spoil so splendid an entertainment?

Emma Thompson plays the author PL Travers, who has for 20 years resisted all efforts to adapt Mary Poppins as a film, especially not one with musical numbers and which might involve animation — yet that’s exactly what studio head Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has in mind.

Upon her reluctant arrival in Hollywood, Travers’ obstinacy puts Uncle Walt’s powers of persuasion to the test — and then some. Their “creative differences” are interspersed with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia, particularly her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell) — a relationship more fraught with trouble and tragedy than she would ever admit.

Thompson’s at her prickly best here, yet the character is never unsympathetic even in her more extreme moments. Hanks brings a smooth experience to the role of Disney (who was, lest we forget, a legend in his own time), and further enticement is provided by a delightful supporting cast: Paul Giamatti, Kathy Baker, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, Melanie Paxson, Rachel Griffiths, Ruth Wilson and newcomer Annie Rose Buckley as the young Travers.

Director John Lee Hancock, whose films tend toward over-length (The Rookie, The Blind Side), lets things run a little long here, too. Once the Mary Poppins production begins in earnest and Travers begins to come around, the flashbacks to her childhood become somewhat distracting. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay sometimes adds a few too many spoonfuls of sugar to the proceedings, as does Thomas Newman’s score, but somehow that’s in keeping with the Disney formula.

Saving Mr. Banks is a movie for movie lovers, awash in sentiment (laughter and tears both — and both in ample quantities) and shrewd studio know-how. It’s also a great advertisement for Mary Poppins, which not so coincidentally celebrates its 50 th anniversary next year. Yes, Uncle Walt’s smiling. !

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