Sometimes the stars align to make a perfect film, or a close to perfect as a movie can be. Saving Mr. Banks, the story of the process of making the beloved Disney film Mary Poppins, isn’t quite perfect, but the stars really have all come together to make this movie a wonderful treat. Funny, emotional and beautifully acted, it makes the perfect family film to see this Christmas, and I am so glad Disney have moved its nationwide release date to November this year instead of the originally planned January 2014 outing.
The movie was developed as an independent production by the BBC, but when they took it to the Walt Disney company the house of mouse got on board and allowed them to use all the songs and Disney character-references. There is also something rather nice about Disney releasing the first film to ever feature Walt Disney played by an actor, in this case the brilliant Tom Hanks. It’s as if the company has come full-circle.
The story concerns the working relationship between the creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and the filmmaker Walt Disney. The American movie-giant flies the Australian writer to Los Angeles to convince her to sign over the rights of her much-loved Ms Poppins, though things don’t go exactly smoothly. It seems Ms Travers has very different ideas as to what type of film her books should make and the one Mr Disney pitches to her turns her stomach. She hates animation and is unwilling for the film to be a musical.
A lot of the Los Angeles-based scenes feature Ms Travers, composers Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert (B.J. Novak) Sherman and the film’s scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). As they go through their plans for the movie, Mrs Travers systematically refuses each suggestion, making it quite plain she thinks their vision for her much-adored character is inappropriate and ill-judged.
Such scenes offer a lot of humour, and there are moments of great hilarity thanks to the precise and perfect timing of Emma Thompson. But like every Emma Thompson movie, where there is laughter there are also tears, and as we learn about her childhood (through flashbacks to her life in Australia with an alcoholic father, sensitively portrayed by Colin Farrell) we realise why the Mary Poppins books mean so much to her character.
The closing scenes are incredibly moving, and director John Lee Hancock utilises Thompsons talents well as he shows Mrs Travers confronting her past by watching it unfurl, albeit through fantastical recreation, on the cinemas screen in front of her. These final moments are all the more affecting because not only do their show a complicated woman bravely facing her demons, but they also try to understand the magic of cinema and its close relationship to memory and the subconscious. When we sit watching a projected film, we are actually doing some projecting ourselves; our hopes and experiences, our desires and our dreams all find their way up onto that screen, slotting into place amongst the characters we watch. It’s a very private process, and by keeping the camera more-or-less fixed on the face of Mrs Travers as she watches the film Mary Poppins for the first time, we experience that process with her. The marriage of music and cinema may well be the closest we get to witnessing magic in this world and the way the actors and filmmakers involved in this wonderful film capture that sense of mysterious wonder is truly sublime.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013), directed by John Lee Hancock, was screened as the Closing Night Gala at the BFI London Film Festival. It is released in cinemas nationwide on 29 November by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Certificate PG. Watch the trailer below: