My father died in September of this year. I was in the air somewhere over Texas, desperately hurrying to get there before time ran out, when he drew his last breath. Walking into that house, only to discover I was too late, was as crushing a moment of pain and regret as I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’d visited several times already over the previous year, watching him refuse to give up and going out to do community service even when he could barely walk, barely breathe. He wouldn’t let go of his mission, his belief in helping children see the world and pursue their dreams no matter what obstacles the world threw up in front of them. Later, as I held the wooden box holding my father’s ashes and cried, I marveled that someone so larger than life could fit into something so small.
Eight weeks later, I was sitting in a screening room being slowly torn to pieces by Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. What I thought was a family-friendly comedy about the making of the classic Disney film Mary Poppins turned out to be an emotionally stirring revelation about the life of author P.L. Travers, who endured childhood traumas and loss that years later formed the backbone of her Mary Poppins book series. Those traumas and losses so frequently mirrored — sometimes just conceptually, other times painfully literally — the things going through my mind in the aftermath of my father’s death, that by the time the movie reached its climax, the emotional punch to the gut was too much to deny and I broke down in tears.
I tell you all of this to explain the context in which I saw Saving Mr. Banks, completely surprised by its content, stunned at such a relevant and revelatory personal experience. Only a few films in 2013 reached out and affected me emotionally, and fewer still did so in a directly personally way. Saving Mr. Banks reached down my throat and ripped my heart out. But it wasn’t an ugly or unwanted experience, it was cathartic and beautiful, tender at the same time it felt raw. It was understanding and empathy on such a deep human level that those who have not personally experienced it might not fully appreciate how right and true it is, and it’s a truth that fills the film from start to finish. (And if you see the film, the above bit of personal background will be more than enough for you to understand precisely why the film hit me with such force, at such a vulnerable time.)
But the loss of a family member, and the regret that comes from all of the things left unsaid and the choices unmade, is so very common to the human condition that I feel the movie will strike a chord on some level with a large portion of its audience. What makes it even more emotionally powerful, and ultimately cathartic, is the way the film deftly moves toward not only the revelations but also the unexpected comprehension and expression of the revelations by a sympathetic friend — in this case, Walt Disney himself. This is not idealized glorification of Disney as a man or a brand, it is in fact a subtle deconstruction of myth serving a larger story about promises made and unrealized, the relationships between children and parents, and the film lets us see Disney through the eyes of a skeptic, stripped of his idealized persona, precisely so we can see him as just a man, a father’s son, and a father himself.
P.L. Travers resisted Walt Disney’s efforts for years, as the studio mogul sought to obtain the rights to her Mary Poppins books for a cinematic adaptation. She grudgingly accepts an offer to visit Disney’s studio in Los Angeles to look at the work they’ve done on the project, hear their songs, and offer her maddening input and criticisms of practically every step of the adaptation process. But as determined as she is to sink the project, Disney is equally determined to win her over and make her happy. The key to making her happy, though, is to unlock whatever painful secrets linger from her childhood, and Disney soon realizes that his previous understanding of the Mary Poppins books is woefully mistaken. Only when he looks deeper does he begin to see the truth, and it’s a stunning bit of revelation indeed, and will forever change how you view the film Mary Poppins and the books upon which it was based.
Emma Thompson portrays Travers as tense and unforgiving on the surface, but as a woman who feels everything deeply even when she struggles not to show it. She’s not merely an artist protecting her creations, she’s a daughter protecting her memories and maintaining the small measure of comfort she created for herself to escape the pain of regret. The details of Travers’ life are for the most part accurately portrayed in the film, including a terrible series of events when her mother’s severe depression becomes too much to bear and leads to a near-tragedy (although the film’s portrayal of Travers’ personal actions is fictionalized). We see these events unfolding in flashbacks that present everything through the perspective of Travers as a young child, so the idealized impression of her father slowly gives way to a more brutally realistic presentation that still retains a childlike confusion and sorrow about what exactly is happening around her.
How those memories impact her day after day during the negotiations with Disney all plays out wonderfully on Thompson’s face as she must increasingly struggle to maintain her composure and keep the emotions at bay, until those amazing moments when it all pours out and she must confront it at last.
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney gives a remarkably subdued performance for such an iconic personality. But this is precisely Hanks’ strength, grounding characters as “Everyman” so we see their simple humanity, letting big actions and decisions find root in the simplest and most universal aspects of the human condition. Here, he gives us a Disney motivated at heart by his promise to his daughters that he would bring Mary Poppins to life for them, in his attempts to be the kind of father he never had. Indeed, the film explores some of the far from glamorous truths about Disney’s own upbringing in an impoverished and abusive home, and we are shown a man who sought imagination and a world where dreams come true because it was only his imagination and dreams that helped him endure and finally escape a reality that was too often painful and unforgiving for him as a child.
This was another unexpected connection I had to this film — growing up in a tiny rural home with nine siblings and two parents, where money was not easy in coming and we grew a garden and kept chickens to help feed ourselves, our imaginations were often the only escape we had from a world that could seem to have little opportunity if all you saw was what’s outside the front door. I remember watching film critic Roger Ebert on TV as he grinned with excitement about the newest amazing adventure out of Hollywood, and I’d lay awake thinking about those films and how fun they must be and how much fun was being had by all those people seeing the movies. It’s why Roger was always my favorite film critic, why I had a fierce loyalty to him, and why it was an honor to actually get to know him a little bit and even briefly converse with him sometimes over the last few years — he was right there, helping me as a child to see a world bigger than the one outside my window.
That Walt Disney had a very vaguely similar background in some ways, and that it spurred his desire to bring dreams to life and to show his children how imagination can accomplish anything, is an arc far deeper and more touching — as well as so personally relevant for me — than I expected from this movie.
And that’s the heart of the matter, really. Saving Mr. Banks is a film that at every turn seems to defy expectations and offer something much more true and personal about life, regardless of how many committed cynics attempt to dismiss it without bothering to look more honestly and seriously at what it has to say. Forget for a moment the question of how literally exacting it is about every single detail of the events and whether you oppose corporate consumer culture, or whether you think the story should’ve been about a whole bunch of other unrelated stuff instead (possibly the most inane criticism I’ve heard of the film) — pay attention to the story in front of you, to the people in this story, and to what is being said about their lives and their motivations. It’s wonderful, it’s surprisingly personal and unafraid of painful discussions, and it has far more heart and integrity in its pursuit of speaking to the human condition, to universal hopes and fears and loss and love, than you’ll expect. Thompson and Hanks bring it all to life with terrific performances that find the core of these characters and remain true to that in every moment on screen.
The rest of the cast is strong and heartfelt as well. Colin Farrell is immensely likeable as Travers’ father. He balances the idealistic storyteller beloved by his children with the secret drinker unable to cope with the real world, causing increasing suffering for his family due to his alcoholism and choice to drag them around with him like props in an imaginary story of what he wants his life to be. Ruth Wilson as Ravers’ long-suffering, depressed, suicidal mother is so perfect and sympathetic as she watches her children fawn all over the man she knows is far from the delightful angel the daughters believe him to be. But she is equally perfect in her own measure of guilt as a parent who allows the unstable and emotionally abusive father to pull them all down with him, unable to stand up for herself or even her children despite the real dangers they increasingly face due to their father’s behavior.
Annie Rose Buckley as the childhood Travers is heartbreaking in her early naivety and adoration of her father, and even more heartbreaking when we see how much she’s beginning to comprehend the reality of her family life. When her mother finally snaps, it drives home the point Travers’ eyes were being pried open at far too young an age as she came to realize the fairy tale life she thought she had was nothing but a broken lie.
But it’s not all sorrow and drama, and there is indeed plenty of humor and uplifting moments as well. Watching Travers wrestle with the Disney writers, watching Travers react to one bit of Disney excess after another, and watching Disney react to Travers’ impossible expectations and demands are all delightfully entertaining bits — even while we realize it was surely not nearly as entertaining for the people suffering through it. The supporting cast of Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, and Paul Giamatti bring plenty of energy and fun to the story, and Giamatti has a great little reveal late in the game that shows how much thought went into the storytelling here to make sure it all comes back around to the main themes and feeding the primary character arcs.
Ignore the cheap attempts to wrongly dismiss this simply as a veiled self-promotional Disney movie about Disney movies. Saving Mr. Banks is great storytelling, a type of filmmaking that feels at once classic and timeless yet also modern in its examination of a time when such clarity and blunt examination of truth was more difficult (especially for those personally involved). I admit that my perspective is undoubtedly influenced by my recent loss of my father, and the film’s reflection of so much of my personal feelings. However, that influence is not a flaw in my review, but rather a benefit — it allows an entirely different and deeper understanding of the film and characters, and that kind of personal connection and resonance is the sort we so often claim to want more often in cinema.
Any film experience is colored by how much we do or don’t relate to the characters and circumstances, of course, and I feel that Saving Mr. Banks can speak to everyone if they just listen closely. We’ve all suffered loss and felt the regret of all the things we never got to say, we’ve all experienced the moment when we no longer saw the world through childlike eyes, and we’ve all on some level wished we could recapture that feeling of perfect childlike wonder summed up in the simple words, “What if?”
With overall very positive critical reception plus a Cinemascore of A, the film has strong buzz that should help it at the box office. It went into wide release this past weekend leading into Christmas, and came in a healthy fifth place with more than $9 million domestically, bringing its worldwide total to $24.6 million (which doesn’t include receipts from about half a dozen foreign markets that just haven’t been tabulated yet) in only a few weeks including the initial limited run.
Since it has a production budget of $35 million, modest success is already drawing near, so the only question is whether it can perform above a modest level and top $100+ million. Some Oscar nominations — it’s sure to get at least a Best Actress nod for Thompson, and I believe it’ll also earn Best Picture and Best Screenplay nominations — will provide a boost in three weeks, as will foreign market roll-outs after the Oscar announcements next month.
So I feel a global take in excess of $100 million will be easy, and that it’s likely to do in the neighborhood of $150 million worldwide, unless it flops overseas. If it actually also gets a Best Director nomination and one or two other acting nods, then that could obviously push it a bit higher, but I don’t really think it will go much beyond $150 million. Nor does it have to, with the lower budget and the likelihood it’ll find a larger audience on home entertainment where profit margins are significantly higher.
Saving Mr. Banks is one of the best films of 2013 and one of the films I most strongly recommend, along with the rest of my “best of the year” list (which also includes American Hustle, Short Term 12, 12 Years A Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Don Jon, and Prisoners). It’s a wonderful film that deserves your attention, and that you deserve to experience.