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Saving Mr. Banks is just one giant Disney commercial: But somehow it's still worthwhile

Alex Bentley
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks. Fact.co.uk
B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman in Saving Mr. Banks
B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman in Saving Mr. Banks. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Movies about making movies, especially ones based on real-life stories, will always be catnip for film lovers, as they purport to take us behind the curtains and show what really happens during the filmmaking process.

The latest example is Saving Mr. Banks, which chronicles the collaboration between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers to adapt Travers’ novel, Mary Poppins. Travers (Emma Thompson) was notoriously reluctant to have her book adapted into a movie, especially by Disney (Tom Hanks), who, of course, was known more for making cartoons than anything else.

 It’s fascinating to discover how songs like “Feed the Birds,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” came to be.

After 20 years of entreaties, Travers finally agreed to travel to Los Angeles in 1961 to meet with Disney, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) to see if they could agree on a proper adaptation.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) intersperses that story with scenes from Travers’ childhood in Australia, where she shared a close relationship with her unreliable and alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). The movie takes great pains to show how her upbringing would come to influence both Travers’ demeanor and her writing.

This splitting time between stories, however, does little to enhance the enjoyment of the film. The objections Travers raises to virtually every element dreamed up by Disney and his cohorts are what make the film interesting. Every time the story digresses into her childhood, it loses steam.

That’s mostly because it’s fascinating to discover how songs like “Feed the Birds,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” came to be — especially due to Travers’ prickliness. Farrell makes the most of his performance, but nothing he does can compare to the Disney scenes.

Thompson plays Travers just right, making her irritable but not so off-putting that she’s not relatable. Hanks is probably the perfect actor to play Disney, as his natural openness and friendliness play right into the persona for which Disney was known.

Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a greatly enjoyable look at the making of one of Disney’s best-known movies. The fact that it’s basically a feature-length commercial for the 50th anniversary edition of Mary Poppins doesn’t diminish its pleasures in the slightest.

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