25th Dec2013

‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Review

by Dan Clark

Stars: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman | Written by Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith | Directed by John Lee Hancock

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Based on the pedigree of Saving Mr. Banks  all signs point to a possible fluff piece. Disney is making a movie about Disney?  Surely it will be a hyperbolic celebration of past Disney glory, especially when it is coming from John Lee Hancock – the same director that gave us overly sentimental movies like The Rookie  and The Blind Side.

Fortunately it is not an idealistic glorification of a modest past. Saving Mr. Banks  does much more than document the making of the American classic Mary Poppins. It is a dissection into the way art can be used to work through and process our personal demons.  That dissection may over simplify matters at times, but it is still willing to go to places you may not be expecting.

In the film Emma Thompson plays P.L. Travers the author of the aforementioned Marry Poppins. Travers’s is this prim and proper curmudgeon who is adverse to any form of compromise. This is a type of performance that can definitely be overlooked for how complex it really is. Thompson is properly unaware of her unintentional humor. She is the type of person that doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Her crash remarks and antics provide plenty of humor and Thompson never feels in on the joke. She is not all laughs and chuckles. Within that hard exterior is a person still wrestling with past hardships, and those hardships point to why she is so protective of her beloved Poppins.

We see the making of Marry Poppins  happened long before the book was ever written as the film shifts to early twentieth century Australia during the childhood of Travers. These moments were more than just simple flashbacks as they shared nearly as much screen time as the main story arc. They added an additional layer of emotional weight as they provide insight into Travers motivations, and how her urge to protect comes from a place far deeper than pride. The transitions between these story arcs were rather seamless. Usually they would complement each other without being too obviously connected. In certain instances a certain artifact like pears or a song would clumsily force them together, but those moments were few and far between.

For nearly twenty years Walt Disney attempted to purchase the movie rights for this beloved book. Travers despises nearly everything about the Disney Company and their overly whimsical sensibilities. She fears they will take her material and turn it into one of their wretched cartoons. Her twenty year blockade begins to lessen as sales of the book start to dry up. With money on short supply she reluctantly agrees to travel to Los Angles to meet with Walt Disney to discuss selling him the rights to her book.

Although this story is about P.L. Travers, the most intriguing part comes from the fact this is the very first time Walt Disney has ever been portrayed in film. Of course when one of your characters is an American icon you get another American icon to play him. In this case the incredible Tom Hanks. Hanks has long proven himself as an actor, and as a person you would be hard pressed to find someone who does not find him endlessly likeable. It may have been an obvious choice, but that doesn’t make it any less brilliant.  Hank’s charm radiates from him to such a degree you instantly feel better when he is around. His presence continuously brings a warming sensation to the film.

While the icon of Walt Disney felt fully represented, the man never truly shines through. It was as if Disney was too apprehensive to allow that legend to dim slightly enough to show he was a man with actual faults. There were hints here and there. A remark about his smoking habit showed his life was not full of only good choices. Still, he never showed great frustration even in a situation that provided plenty. Twenty years he fought to get these rights in order to keep a promise he made to his young girls, yet as those rights slip further and further away his reaction is rather ho-hum.

Watching Disney attempt to sway Travers opinions did provide some great entertainment. They are two sides of two very different coins. Travers in many ways becomes a representation for all the criticism that has been thrown at Disney through the years as they have risen to power. Some of the biggest highlights involved Travers working through the film’s script with a number of writers. Not only did they deliver on a comedic sense, they also allowed from some deep inner reflection.

Saving Mr. Banks  may be a Hollywood movie about an Anti-Hollywood story. It comes off as one of those classic Disney family affairs of yesteryear.  One filled with filled with that classic Disney magic. Inside all that quaintness are some serious undertones that show even the lightest stories have dark beginnings.

**** 4/5

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