Every year there seems to be at least once Oscar bait-y movie that is about the making of another movie. Last year, we had "Argo" and, to a lesser extent, "Hitchcock," films about how the fantasy of movies intermingles all too well with the reality of our lives. The year before that it was "The Artist," which took home the Oscar for Best Picture and encouraged swaths of Middle America sit through a black-and-white silent movie.
This year's movie-about-a-movie Oscar contender is Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks," which details a three-week period in the lives of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) as they try to hammer out a workable deal for the big-screen adaptation of her beloved children's book. It's not an easy task, with the endlessly opinionated Travers constantly butting heads with Disney, who occasionally comes across as a used-car salesman posing as a magician.
Does "Saving Mr. Banks" have what it takes to go for the Oscar gold, or is it just an esoteric bit of Disney trivia brought to the big screen? Read on to find out. Mickey ears optional.
1. Tom Hanks Is a Remarkable Walt Disney
It's kind of shocking that, up until now, no actor has portrayed Walt Disney. Ever. When Moviefone talked to John Lee Hancock over the summer right before we exclusively debuted the trailer, he said that it took an icon to play an icon. And he was right. Hanks doesn't come across as a performer portraying Disney; he feels like the man himself. It's not like he's playing some obscure historical figure whom nobody remembers; there are dozens of hours of footage of Walt available online, and it would be easy to notice any phoniness in Hanks's performance. But there isn't any. He nails the slight Southern twang and the affability of Disney's "Uncle Walt" television persona, right alongside the more cunning and duplicitous aspects of a man who was running a business and wanted to get the job done at any cost. It's a remarkable performance, one made even more outstanding by the fact that Hanks isn't on-screen all that often. Still, with him, every minute counts.
2. It's Not All Sugarcoated
One of the major complaints being leveled against "Saving Mr. Banks" is that it's apparently a sugarcoated version of the story, with all the bad bits left out. But that simply isn't the case. Walt is shown being an occasionally nasty manipulator, one who drinks too much and smokes too much (it's more implied than shown, but it's there). And what he does -- developing "Mary Poppins" without Travers's permission -- is fundamentally wrong. On top of that, his nice-guy persona is gently poked. The lack of diversity at the studio is something that's not addressed, but it's emphasized by inclusion: Disney was not a terribly minority- or female-friendly place back then. Just because most of the characters in "Saving Mr. Banks" are decent and good doesn't mean that the story is overtly sugarcoated. By all historical accounts, this is more or less the truth.
3. The Flashback Sequences Are Riveting
Another of the major issues people seem to have with "Saving Mr. Banks" are the lengthy flashbacks to Travers's childhood in dusty, turn-of-the-century Australia. Although these interrupt the main narrative about Travers's battle with Disney (both the man and the studio), they also give it rich emotional depth. And what's more, the performances in this section of the movie, particularly by Ruth Wilson and Colin Ferrell, as her well-meaning but alcoholic husband, are just as outstanding as the performances in the making-of-"Mary Poppins"-era scenes. Without the flashbacks, the "Mary Poppins" sections would be somewhat hollow and lacking in texture.
4. Emma Thompson Is Miraculous
Talking about Tom Hanks as Disney is easy and fun, and his performance is the more warmhearted and enjoyable of the two, but Thompson is just as miraculous as Travers. It's been a while since she's had a role as good as this to sink her teeth into. Travers was fiercely intelligent, often wildly opinionated, with just the kind of temperament that could get underneath Disney's skin. Just thinking about Thompson's brittle, sometimes downright steely demeanor as the "Mary Poppins" author makes me smile. And her interactions with the other members of the cast, particularly Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the legendary Sherman Brothers and Paul Giamatti as her limo driver, make the movie pop and sizzle. Thompson is a treasure, and "Saving Mr. Banks" is a wonderful reminder of this ironclad fact.
5. You'll Probably Be Crying -- a Lot
The movie opens with a sun-dappled sky and the familiar first few chords of "Chim Chim Cher-ee," and in that moment I already had a lump in my throat. It was just too much. Well, it turns out the movie is filled with such emotional moments, both in the flashbacks and in the Travers/Disney scenes. Combining cheery nostalgia and deep melancholia, "Saving Mr. Banks" is a singularly unforgettable movie-going experience, one that makes you want to weep your eyes out. This is supposed to be a list of things you should know, and this is one of the biggest.
6. There Are Easter Eggs Galore
If you're a Disney maniac like me, then there are a bunch of things in "Saving Mr. Banks" that will make you flip your top. There are too many good ones to name here (and spotting them is one of the movie's unique pleasures), but during a sequence later in the movie, Walt crosses his office in front of a giant, blown-up map of central Florida, future home of Walt Disney World -- and my head almost exploded into a glittery rain of Mickey Mouse-shaped confetti. It's just one of many nods to the incredible history of the company and the man.
7. It's One of the Best Movies of the Year
It might not necessarily be the coolest opinion, but "Saving Mr. Banks" is easily one of the very best movies of 2013 -- one of the most handsomely produced, immaculately acted, and positively thrilling movies I've seen all year. In a weird way, its brand of breathless optimism seems downright revolutionary, especially in this bleak cinematic landscape where cartoon superheroes evoke national tragedies. Those who don't include the film in their year-end top 10 lists or when running down the very best movies of the year aren't giving in to the movie's considerable charm and artistry, both of which oftentimes border on the euphoric. It's also very easy to see Oscar nominations going to a number of the movie's key players, both in front of and behind the scenes (here's to you, screenwriter Kelly Marcel). In other words, it's magical.
8. The Time Period of the Movie Is Even More Pivotal Than They Let On
One of the things that is sort of incredible about the time period in which the movie is set is that two years after the premiere of "Mary Poppins," which is dramatized at the end of the film (without the hilarious anecdote that Travers wanted to change the movie even after it was finished), Walt Disney was dead in the ground. That giant, blown-up poster of Central Florida was a dream that he never saw realized. The smoking that the movie makes mention of, and the casual drinking, would ultimately kill him. The Sherman Brothers would be unceremoniously dismissed from the studio. And no future volumes of "Mary Poppins" would be brought to the big screen. That's kind of huge.
9. It's Still the Official Story
A colleague recently bemoaned to me, when I started screeching at him for not absolutely loving "Saving Mr. Banks," that he wished the movie were a little messier. In the film, we see exactly what ended up on the screen -- the exact songs, the same sketches of the characters, and dialogue from the film. He wanted a rougher version, one featuring songs that didn't make the cut (the Sherman Brothers supposedly wrote more than 30 songs, including some that made it pretty far into production) and unseen avenues the production went down before arriving at the film we know today as "Mary Poppins." But "Saving Mr. Banks" is about how a very specific vision made it to the big screen, and it gleefully weaves moments and songs that audiences know and love into the greater tapestry of the film. It might be the "official" story, but it's no less compelling.
10. Stay Through the Credits
One of P.L. Travers's idiosyncratic tics that is dramatized in the film is the fact that she made sure that every meeting she had about the movie was tape-recorded, in case there was any contentious element or something that needed to go up for review. If you stay through the credits you can actually hear some of those tapes. And it's a trip. In fact, Travers comes off as even thornier than Thompson makes her out to be. Sometimes the truth really is shriller than fiction.
"Saving Mr. Banks" arrives in theaters Friday.