The Walt Disney Company is in the midst of a slew of highly anticipated films—from the animated fairytale Frozen to the reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty tale Maleficient. But out of the many films that the Disney Company will release in the upcoming months, perhaps none is so special as Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the man himself—Walt Disney.
Well, Saving Mr. Banks is actually primarily about the author P.L. Travers, the pen name of Helen Goff, author of the Mary Poppins books. For twenty years, Walt Disney approached her asking for the film rights to her books. And for twenty years Mrs. Travers turned him down, determined that her beloved nanny would not become a sparkling animated character. But at the start of the movie, Mrs. Travers finds herself in a delicate financial situation, so she flies from London to Los Angeles to consider a movie proposition from Walt and his movie team—the songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman and scriptwriter Don Da Gradi.
The entertainment, joy, and the heart of this movie are all in the characters—their stories and their actors. Paul Giamatti is Mrs. Travers’ friendly driver. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are Richard and Robert Sherman, respectively, and both actors give subtle, yet stellar performances as the musical geniuses behind the songs of many a Disney movie. Schwartzman in particular is spectacular in such a simple way, like in the scene where Richard Schwartzman plays the song “Feed the Birds” to Walt Disney for the first time, famously Walt’s favorite Sherman brother’s song.
And of course, Tom Hanks was a great Walt Disney. He was charming, but with an agenda, a businessman but also an imaginative visionary. Hanks played both Disney’s determined realism and his childlike imagination combined in an honest portrayal of the creative mogul. Likewise, Emma Thompson also balances the complexities of her character P.L. Travers. Thompson doesn’t sugar coat her performance. Travers is hard to please, a stickler for details, and sometimes simply rude. But at the same time, she is endearing and the audience sympathizes with her. Much of this is due to the many flashbacks to her childhood, where Travers drew much of her inspiration for her Mary Poppins books.
And on this note, I cannot overlook the characters of these flashbacks. Colin Farrell gives a great performance as Travers Goff, P.L. Traver’s alcoholic but doting and imaginative father, and Ruth Wilson is also good as Traver’s mother.
Every single actor in the movie gives a perfect performance—genuine, subtle, and emotional—because both the story of Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks are geunine, subtle, and emotional. They are both stories about people, people who have a lot of flaws but a lot of love. Mrs. Travers may harbor disappointment and resentment at life, but she loves her nanny with the talking umbrella. Walt may be willing to do anything to get his way, but his movies are labors of love. Flaws make these people realistic, but their love makes them magical. And that is Walt Disney’s true gift—magic. It’s only fitting that a movie about the man behind the mouse also be magical.