MRR Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

MRR Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements including some unsettling images)
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: December 20, 2013
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Genre: Biography/Comedy/Drama

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is an Australian book author who has reinvented herself as a proper English lady in order to escape her past. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is a Missouri farm boy who reinvented himself to become a movie mogul who would build an empire based on Mickey Mouse. On paper, these two would seem to have a lot in common and might get along famously, but the reality is quite the opposite in "Saving Mr. Banks," the true story of how the film "Mary Poppins" came to be.

Travers created the Mary Poppins character as a fantasy escape of sorts from her sordid childhood that included an alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and an overtaxed mother (Ruth Wilson). Her book turned out to be quite popular, especially with the daughters of Walt, who aimed to turn the book into a Disney movie for them. He begins his courtship of Travers in 1941, a full twenty years before the start of the film. For two decades, Travers resisted Walt's advances until her accountant told her that she desperately needed the funds that selling the films rights to her book would bring. She reluctantly flies out to California and begins cowriting the screenplay.

She disapproves of nearly everything Walt gives her, including her observant chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) and the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), the musical geniuses tasked with writing the songs for the film. Travers loves her character so much that she refuses to let her be reduced to a cartoon character. She fights with Walt on nearly every detail, yet he never backs down and never seems exasperated enough to stop production. It takes three years from when Travers comes out to Hollywood until the day the film is finally released, and "Saving Mr. Banks" shows how long, tedious, and rewarding such a long creative process can be. It's a rare look behind the movie-making curtain that should delight audiences, even if they have never once seen "Mary Poppins."

When "Mary Poppins" was released in 1964, Disney had an excellent track record for animated films, but not so much for live action films. The two were still perfecting what would later become an impressive lineup of live action films but hadn't quite gotten there yet. That is part of the reason Walt wanted some animation and lots of musical numbers in the film, because he knew that was what the audiences expected from Disney, and that is what would get them to line up outside the movie theaters, waiting to pony up their money for a ticket. The fact that the studio hadn't yet found its live action bearings seems to have been glossed over in "Saving Mr. Banks," but screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith slyly included this fact. As with so many things in the film, the viewer has to pay close attention or else miss out on some of the subtleties that require them to read between the lines. It's part of what makes the film such a layered, well-developed joy to watch.

The performances are another reason the movie feels layered and well developed. It's hard to imagine anyone else other than Hanks playing Walt with an aw-shucks Midwestern accent as he labors heavily trying to win over the unwinnable Travers. Thompson turns Travers into a grump who might have been completely unlikable, except that Thompson gives her nuances that suggest that a good-hearted woman really is underneath the curmudgeonly wall she puts up. The audience really does want to root for her, even as she tries to obstruct what would later become one of the most beloved children's films of all time. Even the supporting players are great, especially Schwartzman and Novak as the Sherman brothers, who steal pretty much every scene they're in.

The 2013 crop of dramas competing for the big awards is a crowded bunch, but "Saving Mr. Banks" will likely be among the nominees in at least a few categories when the nominations are announced, thanks to things like its impressive period piece costumes and the 1960s set design. Then, of course, there are the performances, which turn what could have been a very straightforward film into something of a voyeuristic peek into the creative process whereby films are made. No matter how many award nods "Saving Mr. Banks" might get, it still stands on its own as a film that shows how movies get made without losing any cinematic magic in the process.

Rating: 4 out of 5