This is a solid bet for that feel-good family film, despite the fact that it contains some heavier (but worthwhile) dramatic elements.
Saving Mr. Banks looks beneath the shiny and cutesy veneer of Disney's iconic Mary Poppins movie adaptation to examine the true-life story of Poppins creator P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and her tumultuous relationship with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). After decades of fighting to keep the rights to her character out of Disney's hands, low finances at last force Travers to venture to Hollywood to make a deal with the relentless mogul.
However, Travers will not sign-off the rights to Poppins without first taking meticulous measure of what Walt has planned for his film. When she first sees the happy-go-lucky movie about Mr. Banks and his family, the author is outraged; but slowly and surely a levee in her mind begins to crack, and waves of bad childhood memories begin to make Mrs. Travers wonder what Mary Poppins really means, and whether or not the world should see her painted in the light of the Disney brand.
The latest film from The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks is a tender and well-envisioned piece of historical memoir, which manages to deconstruct - and then, reconstruct - an iconic character and film in a way that is at once truthful and mature but also moving and reverent.
Hancock creates a unique blend in this film. Scenes from the past of Travers' childhood on a prairie farm are dreamily surreal in their earthy tones and glow; these are juxtaposed to the slightly different (more metallic) glow of 1960s Hollywood and the bright world of Disney. In either case, what could be mundane scenes of period-era workplace or frontier life are instead transformed into more artful and cinematic settings, with a level of visual awareness and purpose that bobs effortlessly in and out of meta-references to the real world beyond the film. (The first-hour jabs at the Disney brand are quite humorous, for example.) The production design is an equally artful and faithful recreation of two historical eras, and a Thomas Newman (American Beauty) musical score only adds to the magic and meaning of the work.
Equally good is the screenplay by former TV writers Kelly Marcel (Terra Nova) and Sue Smith (Bordertown). The script seamlessly (and smartly) weaves the narrative of Travers' two-week stay in Hollywood with key anecdotes from her childhood, revolving around her whimsical drunkard father (Colin Farrell). The story excels at taking the iconic elements of the Marry Poppins film and juxtaposing them to both the troubled birth of the movie production, as well as the tragic events that originally inspired the book series. The multi-layered narrative keeps the movie's pace steady, and allows the deeper emotion of the piece to unfold in perfect timing with the development of its central character. By the end, iconic scenes from the Mary Poppins movie may bring a heartfelt tear to your eye; such is the effect of this story.
Of course the cast helps to carry their end. Emma Thompson tops her usual onscreen persona by playing the addled and pedantic "Mrs. Travers." What begins as an oddball caricature of the real P.L. Travers (whose own prickly nature is verified by actual recordings included at the end of the film), slowly but surely opens up into a portrait of a real woman with deep complexity, and that slow progression is carried out meticulously well by Thompson. Tom Hanks plays up his own "aw-shucks" screen persona to perfect effect as both a depiction of Walt Disney and a suitable foil for Thompson. Hanks' performance also includes subtle touches of the iron-will authoritativeness behind Disney's friendly facade, but his presence never overpowers the film, which belongs entirely to Travers.
The supporting cast consists of two ensembles, each equally good and well-balanced. In the '60s Disney era we have B.J. Novak (The Office), Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom), Bradley Whitford (West Wing), Paul Giamatti, Kathy Baker (Too Big to Fail) and Melanie Paxson as the put-upon Disney employees forced to work under the tyranny of Mrs. Travers. Novak, Schwartzman and Whitford are especially good as iconic composers The Sherman Brothers and Don DaGradi, respectively, while Giamatti acts as a sort of narrative Jimminy Cricket, playing Travers' perennially-upbeat limo driver.
In the flashback scenes we get Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson (Luther) as Travers' parents, with Annie Rose Buckley serving as the young version of Travers and Six Feet Under alum Rachel Griffiths playing the real-life inspiration for the Poppins character. Wilson continues to prove herself a reliable (if not underserved) actress, but it's Farrell who steals this part of the show with his well-tuned portrayal of a complicated and flawed man, bouncing between the poles of melancholy addiction and high-spirited whimsy and compassion. It might be Farrell's best work in a long time, and his performance certainly bolsters the critical backstory that drives the film. Unfortunately Griffiths and her character are given little to do, as the story curiously chooses not to focus to mention on the actual person behind Mary Poppins, instead keeping focus tight on Farrell's character.
In the end, Saving Mr. Banks does what few historical pieces are able to: it both informs and transforms our impression of something we thought we knew, while simultaneously reinforcing what we've always loved about it - or better yet, it provides new intrigue to those who may not have loved it in the first (I speak personally, in this case). As far as holiday season movies go, this is a solid bet for that feel-good family film, despite the fact that it contains some heavier (but worthwhile) dramatic elements. Another winner for Hanks in 2013.
Saving Mr. Banks is now playing in theaters in wider release. It is 125 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.
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