The movie opens with a somber version of "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins, which was Walt Disney's favorite song from any of his films. If you know that, know the song and know this true story of the battle that Disney had with the woman who wrote the book Mary Poppins so he could make the film; it makes your eyes water from the opening few seconds. That's the power that this movie has over you and it's amazing how quickly it can grab some audience members who consider themselves Disney experts or at the very least fans. But what about the rest of you haters and non-believers? Is it possible to still enjoy the film about the film that dazzled everyone at least once in their lives? In-doo-bidi-bly!
Make no mistake about it, Saving Mr. Banks is Oscar bait and perhaps some of the worst kind. It's a historical true story that has levity and fun but also moments of devestation and melancholy. I can overlook that and do it with ease for this however. Maybe it's because of how cold and endearing Emma Thompson (Love Actually, An Education) is as P.L. Travers, the ice queen who made Walt Disney's life a living hell for decades. She's a difficult character because she has to be unlikable but not so much so that you wish someone would have thrown her off the top of the Matterhorn. Thompson tows that line extremely well by letting the moments of warmth really bring us in and make us feel her heart even if it's just to get thrown back out again. It keeps you constantly wanting to see her transform into a big ball of mush even if you know she never does.
We all know that if you want the Academy to take your movie seriously you have to cast Tom Hanks in it and that's just what they did in Saving Mr. Hanks..I mean, Banks. He's delightful and charming as Walt Disney although you don't believe for a single second that he's anyone else in the world besides Tom Hanks. The same goes for all the other performances from Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) and BJ Novak (NBC's The Office, Inglorious Basterds) playing the brilliant Sherman brothers, Colin Farrel (Total Recall, In Bruges) as Travers' tortured and loving father, and Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 12 Years a Slave). They all are basically themselves which is usually disapointing in a historical non-fiction, had they not been so good at doing just that in Saving Mr. Banks. That especially goes for Giamatti who manages to break your heart with the slightest of lip/chin quiver.
The only downside of the film is the director, John Lee Hancock. When I heard they were turning this story into a movie I was excited but then that was dashed against the rocks when I saw Hancock was directing. He's not a good filmmaker. His previous films consist of The Blind Side, The Alamo and The Rookie. Just as suspected, he's the only thing throughly wrong with the film. It is his best one but given his resume, that's not an impressive accomplishment. Aside from having a great production team, he doesn't bring much to the project. None of it is overly creative and it suffers from 2-hour-plus running time which feels closer to three.
Saving Mr. Banks may seem like a film that's for everyone but it isn't really. It's far darker than most people are expecting. The issues of alcoholism, attempted suicide and child abuse are all explored. They even briliantly show the early signs of Walt Disney dying of lung cancer in such subtle ways, most wouldn't pick up on it. But the darkness is far outweighed by the light and seeing scenes shot in Disneyland is enough to make every Disney fan buy a ticket. Being moved to shed a tear or twenty is easy in this film, even if it feels like emotional manipulation at times and sheer exhaustion at others.