It’s a Hollywood legend that Walt Disney felt some sort of malevolent glee in killing Bambi’s mom, and what that animated death would do to the children who saw it. But that’s only a legend.
P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the glorious “Mary Poppins,” was a brittle, snobbish martinet and a humorless control freak. And that’s a fact. Stay through the credits of “Saving Mr. Banks” and hear for yourself.
Two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson brings Travers to prickly life in “Saving Mr Banks,” Disney’s amusingly testy and emotionally rich telling of Walt Disney’s courtly struggles with the dismissive writer as he and his dream factory turned her “Mary Poppins” into one of the most beloved children’s musicals ever.
She stars alongside fellow double Oscar winner Tom Hanks, who gives a definitive performance as the movie mogul.
It’s not just that Hanks finds the Kansas City boy still very much alive in Disney, or that he understands just how much a part of Disney that avuncular persona really was, and how much of it was the character he played on TV.
No, it’s that Hanks IS Disney in these scenes, as we’ve never seen him before; Hanks brings him to life and gives him depth, wit and, above all, feeling in John Lee Hancock’s film. He’s a formidable character and yet this is a story about how he almost met his match in Travers, as he tried to convince her to sell him the rights to make her book, Mary Poppins, into a movie. Which doesn’t prove to be an easy thing.
Travers is stubborn and possessive, and will not have her story, forged in a dark childhood which desperately needed a magical nanny to rescue her and her family, careening towards a (Disney) happy ending, “like a kamikaze.”
Thompson plays Travers as a Fairy Godmother who has given up the sweet act to show her Cruella De Vil side. She is hilariously unpleasant and downright rude. But we, like Walt and her Disney-provided driver (Paul Giamatti), can sense that it’s all an act, and that this pose has deep-rooted, painful underpinnings. It’s a great performance and an exclamation point on Thompson’s career.
The film’s a trifle long, especially for a story whose ending, we know, was a happy one. But with “Saving Mr. Banks”, Hancock, Thompson and Hanks find that holiday film sweet spot, blending the poignant with the unpleasant, the grim with the giddy.
It was never going to be “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Reserve that honour for the film that inspired it. But “Saving Mr. Banks” is still one of the best pictures of the year.