One of the many "based on a true story" Oscar films this year is Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks". This film is based on the tireless efforts by Walt Disney to make the famous 1964 film "Mary Poppins". In capturing this pre-production, Tom Hanks fills the shoes of Mr. Disney himself but the central performance of this film is the author of the Mary Poppins novels - P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). As we take this behind the scenes look, we get to the know the inspiration for the character and her importance to the author. As we soon find out, Mary Poppins is a very personal creation for Travers, explaining that the character and the Banks family (the major characters in the book) are like family to her. In order to make the film though, she must relinquish some creative control to Disney as he secures the rights to the novel, which turns out to be the ongoing struggle of the plot.
Indeed, as the story progresses much of it is dedicated to the repeated objections by Travers in relation to the concept of the film. Strongly opposed to the intended playful, musical nature she becomes quite an insufferable character. Due to this constant narrative thread, the film often feels very dull. It makes you likely to wonder what was so special about this particular film production in the first place. Especially considering the magic and charm involved in Mary Poppins, this ends up feeling very mundane in comparison. Thankfully, there's another aspect to the story that picks up the slack. Using flashback sequences from Travers' own childhood, we get a stronger understanding of this fictional story and the seemingly rigid Travers. For my money, this subplot is the real heart of "Saving Mr. Banks".
Despite the humdrum plot mechanics of the production drama though, Thompson and Hanks give compelling performances that keep you engaged. Thompson is clearly better than the material she's given, expertly towing the line between making her character empathetic without softening her hard edges. Meanwhile, Hanks is the epitome of warmth and charm as he embodies the persona of his iconic character. As a Mary Poppins fan, I would have liked to see some recreations of individual scenes, but these actors captured the essence of the film well enough.
Overall, I would hardly call this an outstanding feat of filmmaking but the performances and general design (the costumes and production design of 1960s Los Angeles are a visual delight) make it well worth your time. Fans of the "Mary Poppins" are likely to be particularly pleased with this further insight into the making of this beloved film.
In terms of the film's Oscar prospects, I would currently say its best bets are Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Emma Thompson is already an AMPAS favourite and Tom Hanks certainly has his "Oscar clip". Also, the film is the type of light drama with just enough gravitas that would appeal to Academy voters. A month ago I would also have put this in contention in various other "technical" categories but at this point, these 3 nods seem the most likely. The film is definitely a wildcard in the Oscar race though, so it would be interesting to see how it fares come nominations time.