Saving Mr. Banks (2013) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckly, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Bigham, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Review published December 16, 2013
John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) directs Saving Mr. Banks, a live-action Disney film about the making of another live-action Disney film, Mary Poppins. In this high-gloss tale based on true events, we learn that it took Walt Disney (Hanks, Captain Phillips) two decades of persistent massaging in order to finally get a financially strapped P.L. Travers (Thompson, Men in Black 3), the author of the books on the "Mary Poppins" character, to finally bring forward his dream, as well as that of his daughters, to adapt her beloved children's story into a major motion picture that would become a family favorite for future generations.
The problem is that Travers would only sign on if she were given full say-so in the development phase of the film, only consenting to the contract agreement to the film rights once her oft-difficult-to-impossible story demands were met. Travers can't stand animation, and definitely does not put Disney's approach to storytelling in high regard. During a couple of weeks in 1961, Disney and his creative story and songwriting team bend over backwards and forward again in order to appease Travers, trying to give her every assurance that the things they would like to do with the film will not sully her most important and personal creation.
Interspersed between the scenes of Disney and Travers making movie history are flashbacks to Travers' childhood growing up in Australia, especially regarding her relationship with her doting but irresponsible, alcoholic father (Farrell, Epic), whose inability to retain a job led to a childhood of constant uprooting and emotional upheaval. These scenes are not only important in explaining some of the things that went on to influence Travers into what she put into her book, but also explains in a very poignant fashion just why these characters and their world meant so much to her such that she didn't want to see it 'trashed' by becoming merely a cash-grabbing opportunity for Disney (Travers derisively refers to Disneyland as their "dollar-printing machine").
The Aussie setting is simplistic and wouldn't make for a particularly strong movie in and of itself, but as they are told from the perspective of a woman's recollection of her childhood, they work well enough, especially in explaining the film's affecting title. It also gives Travers a certain pathos necessary for us to know that she isn't a withered and bitter harpy to the bone, which makes the later scenes of her opening up to resolving her present with her past a smooth one. While these early Australian scenes give the film its emotional resonance that pays off later, most viewers will find the scenes of the middle-aged Travers and her often condescending interplay with Walt Disney, her limo driver (Giamatti, 12 Years a Slave), and the trio comprising of the film's head screenwriter, Don DaGradi (Whitford, CBGB), and two songwriters, Richard (Schwartzman, Scott Pilgrim) and Robert Sherman (Novak, Reign Over Me), to be where the lion's share of entertainment value lie.
Being a Disney film, we don't expect for Saving Mr. Banks to spotlight its creator, Walt Disney, as anything more than a great, loving man. With the exception of a scene where he is caught smoking, something he would often do far more openly than is shown in this film, there's really nothing in here that would raise the eyebrow of Disney's most sensitive public relations manager. But that's all fine; this is not an exposť, or even a biography, on Disney himself, merely his involvement with bringing Mary Poppins to the big screen. His seemingly endless geniality is akin to a narrative counterbalance to Travers' shrewishness.
While not a work of enduring art, Saving Mr. Banks remains a thoroughly pleasant, handsomely presented, well-crafted drama with strong comedic elements that will likely please general audiences who are apt to enjoy feel-good films with a few sentimental tearjerker elements tossed in, and heaping spoonfuls of sugar to make it all go down well. It's worth watching for some solid performances, especially in the interplay between Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks (though the latter is likely more Hanks than Disney), and Colin Farrell delivers one of his better turns in many years as the father who has created his own turmoil despite all of his best efforts to be the best father he can.
Some might consider it, perhaps, a bit schmaltzy and cloying, and a transparent attempt at garnering Oscar nominations, but it's also one of those movies that will likely entertain all but the most hard-hearted in its earnest attempt to please -- which is apropos, as this is the cornerstone upon which Disney is built upon.
-- Stay through a good portion of the closing credits for a series of photographs of the real-life participants of this time period, as well as to hear an authentic excerpt from one of the audio reels recorded between Travers and her Disney collaborators that demonstrates the contest of wills in the initial phases of the production.
©2013 Vince Leo