I had some expectations going into this movie – perhaps some that could not be easily met.
I consider myself a Disney historian, having studied Walt Disney, the man and the company he built, for over twenty years. I love what Disney does, but I’m not afraid to call things the way I see them.
I had to see this film twice to fully appreciate it. The first viewing was peppered with my grumblings about the historical accuracy of the events depicted. To say that this film was inspired by true events would be entirely accurate. It did play fast-and-loose with the facts.
The second time made me see the film for what it was: an enjoyable piece of cinema inspired by actual events.
Saving Mr. Banks is not a documentary, nor does it claim to be. It is a film, and a wonderful one at that. Much like the film Hitchcock placed the Master of Suspense in a fictionalized account of an actual event, in Hitch’s trademark style, Mr. Banks places Walt Disney, the man, in one of his “Disney” films – a very clever tribute.
When it’s good enough for Richard Sherman, the only person involved in the creation of Mary Poppins who is still living, it’s good enough for me.
Saving Mr. Banks was also a thematically rich movie. This was a story about legacy – how crucial a parent’s behavior is in shaping their children’s outlook on life. It was a movie about a desperate plea for a parent’s redemption, a plea that mirrors our own yearning for redemption, which can only be satisfied by Jesus Christ.
Here we go… SPOILERS AHEAD
Emma Thompson was amazing as P.L. Travers. She really disappeared into the role, and imbued the film’s Travers with as much tenacity and stubbornness as the real McCoy, yet she was able to drop hints of her softer side. She played toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney, and it was a joy to watch. It was a shame that she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.
John Lee Hancock was the perfect director for this film. His films are warm, inspiring, somewhat nostalgic, filled with an indescribable sense of wonder – and this one is no exception. The color palate is bright and cheerful, and the flashback scenes have a hint of sepia tones. Most Hollywood films today are dark, even the supposed “feel-good” ones (which is not a bad thing for certain stories). It’s always refreshing to see a movie every once in a while that just makes one genuinely feel good after seeing it.
The art direction and sets were top-notch. It was a delightful pastiche of the 1960s – a sort of hyper-realized version. Not a caricature, but an homage to this bygone era, cleaned up for the big screen. The colors of the costumes even helped create this very unique sense of place and time.
As usual, Thomas Newman delivers a wonderful score that complements the film so well. Newman is particularly good at striking emotional chords (pun intended) – not so much melodic tunes one could hum, but more simple “feelings.”
Tom Hanks is not Walt Disney, and his performance consistently reminded me of that fact. I never bought it and just went with it. I must, however, give him credit for doing his homework and researching the role. He picked up all of Walt’s mannerisms (the cough, the stance, the accent, etc.), but he was still Tom Hanks with a mustache. Hanks also looks too young; Walt’s face, by this time, was quite weathered.
Though I do understand that certain liberties have to sometimes be made with turning real events into films, some of the leaps taken in Saving Mr. Banks were peculiar, and some were downright unnecessary.
The character of Ralph, played very well by Paul Giamatti, was made up for the story for no reason. There was a real person in charge of handling Mrs. Travers during her time in America; his name was Bill Dover, a Disney Studio storyman. Bill was charged with driving Mrs. Travers, making sure she had a nice time, as well as showing her around Disneyland. I could understand giving Walt more to do by showing Mrs. Travers Disneyland (he was in Palm Springs most of the time she was there), but Bill could have still been that emotional lynchpin that Mrs. Travers needed to change her mind, and it would have been more historically accurate. On top of that, the Ralph character resembled Bill Dover! So frustrating.
The Disneyland sequence drove me nuts. I could not suspend my disbelief when I kept seeing things in the background that were not there in 1961. The crew did put out some effort to hide things, and the angle of the cameras did help, but there were some shots where I wondered why they didn’t place the camera somewhere else. There should have been a lot of blue-screen work in Fantasyland (Disneyland’s Fantasyland was completely redone in 1983). However, I suppose that, to the casual viewer, things like these don’t matter. It took me out of the time period immediately.
To be fair, one of the things the crew got correct was the look of the Sleeping Beauty Castle. They really did their research when it came to the pale hues of the 1960s turrets and spires. What’s even more spectacular is that the castle had remnants of the snow coverings from the holidays while the movie was being shot, and the snow was completely gone in the film. The transformation was seamless.
Themes and Thoughts
The film’s core comes from Mrs. Travers’ inability to let go of Mary Poppins, fearing Walt’s “Disney-fication” of the stories. It is understandable that an artist would be wary of someone adapting their work. They put a little bit of themselves into their creation, using their feelings, emotions and memories to inspire them – be it a book, film, painting, or something else.
We were given this connection to something we create by God. Our Heavenly Father Himself is an artist, an artist who looked on His work and proclaimed in Genesis that “it was good” (Genesis 1:31). We were fashioned in His image, and He did indeed put His heart into creating us (Genesis 1:27). As His creations, we reflect His nature, and He longs to hold us close to Him.
As the story progresses, this reluctance on the part of Mrs. Travers is revealed to be about more than protecting her creation. She must let go of certain memories from her past she has harbored – memories that inspired characters in the books. The titular Mr. Banks, the aloof patriarch of the family Mary Poppins comes into, was based on Mrs. Travers’ response to her late father’s erratic behavior.
One of the Ten Commandments is to “honor your mother and father,” (Exodus 20:12), and for many people, it is one of the most difficult to keep. Since our parents are just as imperfect as we are, mistakes are made, and resentments can build. Most parenting mistakes are small, but others are deeply scarring. Parents sometimes have little idea that the things they do have a lasting impact on their children. In spite of it all, we are expected to honor our parents for their role in our lives. They, after all, sacrificed much to bring us up. Most do the best job they can, and deserve respect from their children.
Mrs. Travers had a very conflicted view of her father. She saw him as a happy and playful man, respecting him so much that she took his first name as the last name of her pseudonym (she was born Helen Goff). Yet at the same time, she saw him as a weak, immature lout saddled with a debilitating drinking habit, who never really concerned himself with actual work.
Mrs. Travers resented her father, and was unwilling to forgive him for the pain he had caused her family; but she was also unwilling to forgive herself for what she believed was encouraging her father’s addiction. She bristled at Walt and his crew’s efforts because she perceived them to be propagating her father’s silly, saccharine philosophy. And still, Pamela had an innate desire to “save” her father, or at least his memory, from being tarnished by the sins of the past. Any attempt by the production team to make George Banks look bad was met with genuine, pent-up hostility.
The emotional breakthrough finally came when Walt sat Mrs. Travers down and, after understanding her reasons, explained that her father can, indeed, be redeemed – by saving George Banks. Walt reassured her that George Banks’ redemption, and therefore her father’s, would be seen and felt by everyone who saw the finished film. She just needed to have faith that Walt would come through on his promise:
“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Redemption is one of the key themes of a good story. It is something we gravitate toward because, deep in our hearts, we know that we are in need of, and hope for, redemption. However, it is not up to us or our children to redeem our name.
“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:21-24
Rather than restoring order with words or deeds, God came to earth and died to restore our place with Him. God’s restoration of hope came from His sacrifice. There was nothing we, as imperfect sinners, could have done to attain our own redemption. We and our parents – everyone – can be redeemed by God’s sacrifice. As Christians, we have a hope instilled in us that our transgressions will be forgiven and, one day, we will be able to step into the presence of our Lord.
Walt implored Mrs. Travers to let go of a life dictated by past hurts, and live life the way it should be lived. Sin can cause us a hard and painful life, living with the knowledge of past hurts and transgressions, with no hope of redemption. Forgiveness through Jesus Christ is the way to end the cycle of resentment and hurt, and begin a path to true, real forgiveness and true life.
Saving Mr. Banks is a great movie. While it does not follow to a tee the historical events on which it is based, it flows with the spirit of the true story. It is a deep story that makes us think about the legacy of our parents, and question what kind of legacy we will leave behind. The narrative contains an uplifting message of redemption that parallels our story of redemption with our Lord and Savior.
In this more cynical age, there will be those who will scoff at this film’s sweetness, which is really quite sad. I think that, to paraphrase Agent Coulson in The Avengers, with what’s going on in the world today, people could use a little more sweetness.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Walt Disney Pictures / BBC Films
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti,
Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford and Colin Farrell
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
Directed by John Lee Hancock