Could a movie be any more weighted down with Oscar bait than is Saving Mr. Banks? It stars two Academy Award-winning actors (Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson), one of whom is playing one of the most famous Americans of the 20th century (Walt Disney), set in the fashionable (thanks to the popularity of Mad Men) early 1960s and with a story about the making of a beloved film (Mary Poppins). There are a few other well-known Oscar attractants that they might have worked in as well, but probably not without raising eyebrows.
John Lee Hancock’s movie clearly fosters award-season pretensions, but it’s just a fun little diversion that should hold special entertainment value for Poppins fans (I count myself among those.) It truly is a joy to see the back-story behind the writing of such classic songs as “Feed the Birds” and to learn about the curmudgeonly English author, P.L. Travers (played by Thompson), who first brought the world’s most famous nanny to life.
Saving Mr. Banks cuts between the parallel tales of Walt Disney’s full-court press to convince Travers to sell him the rights to turn her Mary Poppins books into a film and of Travers’ childhood in Australia. She is reluctant to share her beloved character with Disney and travels to Los Angeles to see what the studio has in mind for the production. At first, she demands no animation, no musical numbers, and gravitas rather than frivolous humor.
As we gradually learn more about the tragic events of Travers’ childhood, we come to better understand what Mary Poppins means to her and why she’s so protective of her work. I was concerned at one point that the film would reach the level of unbearable schmaltz found in another literary back-story movie, the execrable (and successfully Oscar-baited) Finding Neverland. It thankfully avoids drowning in such sentiment, even though it forces you to swallow a few mouthfuls.
It’s mythologizing of the Disney dream factory is bit much (not surprising, given that Saving Mr. Banks is itself a Disney picture), but I was too busy humming “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” as I left the theater to care.