“Thompson and Hanks Save the Day”

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks
Directed by John Lee Hancock

“Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you.”
-Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), “Saving Mr. Banks”

It speaks volumes about how protective author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was of Mary Poppins that even the great Walt Disney himself had to drop to his knees and practically beg her to let him make a movie based on her beloved creation – a creation that, for personal reasons, was like family to her. But Disney understood where she was coming from. A long, long time ago, when the young Disney was just starting out in Hollywood, he was the one who was over-protective of his beloved creation: a cartoon mouse named Mickey that, for personal reasons, was like family to him.

At that moment, these two polar opposites – the uptight, headstrong Travers and the charming, irresistible Disney – finally see eye-to-eye and realize that they are a lot more alike than unalike. That’s also when “Saving Mr. Banks” solidifies its prestige as a wonderful, delightful and magical crowd-pleaser that ranks as one of the year’s very best movies. Graced with superb performances from Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, an excellent screenplay written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith and enchanting direction from John Lee Hancock, “Saving Mr. Banks” will warm your heart faster than you can say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

After directing 2002’s “The Rookie” and 2009’s “The Blind Side” – two sensitive, deeply moving and uplifting character-driven films that were based on true stories – there’s no question that Hancock was perfectly suited to direct “Saving Mr. Banks.” But Hancock tops himself here by seamlessly executing a more challenging structure that shifts back and forth between two different stories with diverse tones: there’s the whimsical and often humorous development of “Mary Poppins” on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank in the early 1960s, and then there’s the more serious and heartfelt coming-of-age story about Travers’ difficult childhood while growing up in Australia decades before.

It’s during these flashback scenes that “Saving Mr. Banks” reveals the first of its many cinematic pleasures: a revelatory performance from Colin Farrell as Travers’ loving, but conflicted and alcoholic father. Farrell is simply sensational with a deep, powerful turn that could lead to a welcome change in the course of his career, while Rachel Griffiths is also very effective as Aunt Ellie, a nurturing figure during Travers’ upbringing who turns out to be a major inspiration in her writing career.

But the real showcase is the radiant Emma Thompson, who effortlessly achieves the right balance of making Travers stubborn, difficult and uptight while also making her sympathetic, vulnerable, lonely and, in her own way, quite funny. The latter qualities are crucial if moviegoers are going to embrace her, especially since she fights everyone from screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) to songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to even Disney himself during every – and I mean every – step of the filmmaking process.

And though Hanks has played real-life characters before (in 1995’s “Apollo 13” and this year’s “Captain Phillips”), the two-time Oscar-winner faces an even greater challenge with “Saving Mr. Banks” – specifically, how to humanize a larger-than-life legend like Walt Disney. Amazingly, Hanks does just that by playing Disney as the magical figure many would expect him to be, but he also portrays him as a smart businessman who just wanted to make a fun family movie.

On top of everything, “Saving Mr. Banks” is also graced with glorious production values, gorgeous cinematography by John Schwartzman and a beautiful score composed by Thomas Newman (“American Beauty”). The film arrives in theaters just in time for the 50th Anniversary DVD release of “Mary Poppins,” so a refresher course would enhance the clever nods that “Banks” makes to the characters, the costumes and, of course, the music of that 1964 classic. But even if you haven’t seen “Poppins,” “Saving Mr. Banks” stands on its own as a wonderful movie – one that Disney himself would have loved, and one that may even inspire you to, dare I say it, go fly a kite.

-Scott Mantz