Saving Mr. Banks: A Splendid Surprise

The holidays are a delicate time for interfaith families. There is not a lot to agree upon. The only common ground for my own interfaith family is film. Not the quality of a movie – no no, there is rarely a consensus there – but that we see many movies. That’s something everyone can get behind. Jews and bored Christians alike head to the theater on Christmas Day, and once the lights go down, we’re not even allowed to interact. Everyone is together without even the potential for conflict. It’s a beautiful, unifying thing.

My family saw just about everything in theaters this winter break (to the point where we all saw Wolf of Wall Street together. Not a family film). As usual, opinions differed wildly. We were divided on American Hustle. I was the only one who enjoyed Inside Llewyn Davis. And I loved Her while my mom slept through parts of it (a 9:30 PM showing is “just too late”) and my dad complained that he had a “fundamental issue with the fact that Scarlett Johansson’s body was not in the film.” But this year something that rarely happens occurred: my family saw a movie we agreed upon. What’s more astounding is that it was a film we all loved.

Saving Mr. Banks looked like it would be a heart-warming family film. The “by Disney, about Disney” marketing seemed to promise some major cheesiness and self-congratulatory bias. I went purely because of my “see anything Tom Hanks is in” rule, to which I strictly adhere. But the movie turned out to be nothing like I expected. In fact, the trailers utterly misrepresent the film – and that turns out to be a great thing. The movie’s magic – a dark, rather un-Disney-like magic – is all in what they didn’t show us was coming.

The trailers tell us that Saving Mr. Banks depicts the story of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) trying to convince Ms. P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, to let him make her children’s classic into a Disney film. He’s spent twenty years unsuccessfully wooing Travers, but now she’s finally, begrudgingly, come to Los Angeles from London to see what his plans for the movie are and to consider signing the rights over to him. Travers is reluctant because she is concerned that Disney will turn Mary Poppins into “one of your silly cartoons.” P.L. Travers is, to put it lightly, a difficult, extremely particular, very grumpy woman (and many reports say that the film’s Travers is a much more pleasant lady than the real life one). She offends just about everyone she comes across, trashing anything and everything to come out of their mouths, all in the name of protecting the characters and story that are so dear to her.

The film is so good because it explains to us, through flashbacks to her childhood, precisely why the story of Mary Poppins means so much to her. I don’t want to reveal too much about the film’s depiction of Travers’ childhood, which she at first sternly and obsessively protects; most of the joy in watching this movie comes from slowly learning to understand her and just where she is coming from. This is a film that encourages us to give people the benefit of the doubt. It reminds us that the things we observe from someone’s surface behavior come from emotional depths that we can never truly understand yet may nonetheless resonate within ourselves. Saving Mr. Banks is a far darker movie than the trailers lead us to believe, and is much the better for it.

Saving Mr. Banks conveniently sidesteps any controversy about Walt Disney’s real life character (there are many rumors of racism and anti-Semitism). The movie cuts back and forth a little too much between the present and Travers’ past, but that’s about as far as my quibbles with the film go. The lead performances alone are worth the price of admission. Emma Thompson brilliantly takes you for a wild tour of emotions, ranging from a deep hatred of her character to a more nuanced understanding. Tom Hanks is superb as usual – though he’s not in the film as much as the trailers make it seem – and I will continue to follow him wherever he leads me. Maybe he’s the god my family’s been searching to worship together all along.

Grade: A

Amy Solomon is a senior and an Independent Concentrator in Journalism.