Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

28 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here’s something I’m not sure anyone would have expected: a Disney film about the making of a Disney film. And it’s not just any Disney film, but “Mary Poppins,” well-known as one of Walt Disney’s best. Yet it also seems kind of ideal of an idea to be made, since the story behind Walt Disney and co. getting the rights to the original source material by author P.L. Travers is an interesting one. That story is made into Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks.”

The film takes place in the early 1960s. Emma Thompson stars as P.L. Travers, the author of the popular “Mary Poppins” books, which Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) has been trying to obtain the rights to for years so he can produce a film adaptation. For 20 years, Travers has resisted the urgency because she isn’t a particular fan of Disney. She can’t abide cartoons, she doesn’t like his lighthearted fare, and she just can’t see her beloved characters treated in a way she’s afraid Disney would do. But now, she’s struggling with her financial situations and feels she has no choice but to agree to let the Disney studio make the “Mary Poppins” film.

She travels from London to Los Angeles to meet and negotiate with Disney, the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), and the writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). But each session tests her patience, as she doesn’t always agree with their decisions. She’s a stubborn, bitter woman who won’t stand for nonsense. They come to compromises (sometimes to her disdain) and Disney tries to open Travers’ heart to what magic he has to offer.

There is a lot of delight in the scenes where she visits with her collaborators, especially for those who know and love the popular Disney film. There are comic moments that reference what almost was and what did become part of the film, and the dialogue in these scenes is just fun to listen to. This is one of the most interesting, entertaining films I’ve seen about the collaborative process in Hollywood filmmaking. Even if some of it doesn’t necessarily ring true, it’s still interesting to watch.

It’s kind of unusual for this film to be made, since it isn’t an entirely pleasant story to be told. But director John Lee Hancock (who also directed the 2002 sports film released by Disney, “The Rookie”) and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith found a way to make this film sweet and entertaining but also very effective. The story is intercut with the rougher edges of the film, which occur in flashback sequences in which Travers, living in Australia, deals with the sickness of her father (Colin Farrell) who is fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. In these sequences, we see where Travers got the idea for most of the characters and events in her books. We understand their meaning and why they’re so important to Travers.

It can be argued that the contrast between the 1900s flashbacks and the 1960s events makes the former feel like a different film. But I think the combination of light and darkness is suitable for giving the audience an understanding for why Travers feels the way she feels about certain things occurring now. This gives most of her meetings with Disney a greater meaning. And because of the flashbacks, we also have a complete portrait of P.L. Travers, seeing her as a child played by Annie Rose Buckley and as a middle-aged woman played by Thompson.

Emma Thompson carries this movie. Her performance as P.L. Travers is definitely spot-on. She plays a stubborn woman who has had a troubled past, as well as a writer who loves her characters too much to see them ruined. Any writer could relate to that in some way. Thompson’s great here. The surprise performance for me came from Tom Hanks. I didn’t know how well he would portray Uncle Walt himself, but he managed to project the right amount of optimism and happiness that can definitely remind you of the late Hollywood titan. And it’s just hard not to see him as Disney. Note the scene later on when he talks to Travers about why years back, he never gave away his character of Mickey Mouse for money; you can see and hear the sincerity in his performance.

Those who know the story beforehand may have a bit of an issue with the ending of “Saving Mr. Banks.” Without giving too much away, it may rub some people the wrong way. But personally, I would see it as a “on the one hand/on the other hand” resolution. Maybe it doesn’t entirely make clear what Travers is feeling at the premiere screening of “Mary Poppins,” but so what? It didn’t need to go one way by fully presenting what should be felt here; that would have been cheating. Instead, we get an ending that can be analytical and heartwarming at the same time.

For those with a soft spot for “Mary Poppins,” “Saving Mr. Banks” is a treasure. For those who are interested in the collaborative process in a movie studio, it’s also a treasure. And of course that can also be said for those who are straight-up Disney fans. I can relate to all three. I loved “Saving Mr. Banks.” It’s solidly-acted, it’s entertaining, it has an effective balance of comedy and drama, and for lack of a better term, it’s “Disney magic.”

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